Sunday, September 20, 2020
Sept. 20, 2020

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In Our View: Gerrymandering biggest threat to democracy

The Columbian
Published:

While there has been necessary attention placed upon Russian interference in the 2016 election and on questions about voter eligibility, perhaps the biggest threat facing our democracy is gerrymandering.

That was reinforced last week when a federal court ruled that Michigan’s boundaries for congressional and legislative districts represent a political gerrymander “of historical proportions.” The ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals read, in part: “This court joins the growing chorus of federal courts that have, in recent years, held that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.”

Washington state has wisely taken steps to avoid the partisan drawing of district boundaries. The bipartisan, four-person Washington Redistricting Commission was established with a 1983 amendment to the state constitution and is tasked each 10 years with using Census data to draw the maps.

But most other states allow legislatures to draw electoral boundaries, giving power to the party in charge. Michigan joins Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland and Wisconsin in having its voting districts at least partially overturned by the courts.

Gerrymandering is the drawing of districts designed to disenfranchise one particular party or, in some cases, an ethnic group. Either by packing opponents into a handful of districts — or spreading them out in small numbers among many districts — partisans can create election results that do not match the vote.

Imagine an area with 25 voters who lean Republican and 25 who lean Democratic. Let’s say those voters will select five representatives. By packing one district with 10 voters of similar persuasion, the other four districts can all support the party that drew the map. The result is a 4-1 advantage in terms of representation, even though the total votes are equal.

In one real-life example, in 2016 in North Carolina, Democrats received 47 percent of the statewide popular vote for the U.S. House of Representatives but ended up with 23 percent of the representatives.

This runs counter to the American ethos of one person, one vote. It is inherently undemocratic and is a menace to our system of representative democracy.

In the Michigan case, the court ruled that an adopted redistricting plan violated the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It ordered the state to redraw districts in time for the 2020 election and hold special elections for some legislative seats, but state Republicans say they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In March, the Supreme Court heard gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina, but has not yet issued rulings.

Meanwhile, lower courts are facing more and more cases involving gerrymandering. Modern computer analysis allows the party in charge to more ruthlessly draw partisan maps and allows opponents to more effectively demonstrate how those maps are unconstitutional.

The issue adds to pressure on the integrity of our election system. The report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller found that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia during the 2016 election, but left no doubt that Russian agents interfered. And questions about voter eligibility have ranged from efforts to remove minorities from voter rolls to suggestions that people who are incarcerated should be allowed to vote.

Those are complex issues, but the conundrum of illegal gerrymandering should be easy to fix. Other states should be quick to adopt Washington’s bipartisan approach to drawing congressional and legislative districts.

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