Gerrymandering: What’s In A Name?


John Opdycke President, Open Primaries
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Former Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that he—with support and encouragement from former President Obama—will be spearheading the newly formed National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Holder asserts that Republicans have drawn district lines to increase Republican representation in Congress and in state legislatures.  He believes that the Democratic Party’s ability to compete rests on reversing Republican dominance of district map drawing.

As a leader of the disruptive wing (as opposed to the regulatory wing) of the political reform movement, I welcome Mr. Holder to the fray.

But there is an important question that arises from this announcement that cannot be glossed over.  Namely, are Holder/Obama interested in ending gerrymandering?  Or do they simply want to make sure that Democrats have a seat at the gerrymandering table?

Holder’s early answer seems to be “both.”  The new committee plans on launching legal and political efforts to promote nonpartisan redistricting, while simultaneously working to elect Democrats to key positions that have influence over the redistricting process.

I’m not sure the two goals are compatible.

Holder told The New York Times that he aims to challenge the “system now where the politicians are picking their voters, as opposed to voters making selections about who they want to represent them.” If that is his goal, he better be prepared to go up against his own party.  Because while the Republicans control redistricting in most states, some of the most adamant opponents of reform are Democrats.

Illinois Speaker Mike Madigan succeeded not once but twice in thwarting efforts by a broad coalition of business, good government, and community organizations to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Illinois.   In 2010, California Democrats spearheaded the failed effort to defeat Proposition 20, which created a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

Holder will have to navigate the unpleasant fact that many in his own party do not oppose gerrymandering even as they resent the fact that Republicans now dominate the process.

Republicans are blunt in their defense of gerrymandering.  “This is a red state.  We won a majority.  We should control the process.”  I don’t agree with it, but it’s above board.  The Democrats are less open about their motives.  In states they control, they defend their mapmaking by asserting that gerrymandering is a necessary component of defending minority voters and historically disenfranchised communities.   They argue that creating noncompetitive districts is an act of voter empowerment.

I’m not pointing this out to discourage Mr. Holder nor President Obama.  Far from it.  We need political figures of their stature to invest time and energy in “de-rigging” the political process.  Partisan control of the redistricting process is one reason why 90% of elections in the US are uncompetitive.  Another reason is closed partisan primaries.   But to address gerrymandering in a way that will make a difference for the American people, Holder and Obama will need to join forces with independent and Republican reformers.

Historically, both parties have seized every opportunity to draw lines in their favor.  Ten years ago, the Republican Party skillfully invested time and resources to gain the upper hand.  But restoring bi-partisan balance—even if Holder could effect it—is not a long term solution to the lack of electoral competition.  You cannot use the same methodology to unrig the system that was used to rig it.

Mr. Holder should appeal to the American public’s deep commitment to fair play and fierce competition.  The Bears and the Packers have been going at it for 95 years.  There are no more partisan fans than those at Lambeau or Soldier Field.  But both sides agree strongly that neither team should control the rules or the referees.  Let the Democrats and Republicans compete.  Let them continue their fierce rivalry, which is only enhanced by having a level playing field.

My advice to Mr. Holder is to do something radical before you hold your first fundraiser.   Rename your committee.  Call it the National Redistricting Reform Committee for All Americans.  Get plenty of Republicans on board.  Get some independents on board.  Work to enact nonpartisan redistricting in every state.  The issue is not the Republican control of redistricting; it’s the partisan control of redistricting.  And if you don’t address that, you won’t be successful because the American people will see it for what it is:  just another attempt to game the system.

Opdycke is president of Open Primaries, a national election-reform group.