When Voting is Futile

Equal representation. It's one of the founding principles of our democracy, enshrined in our Constitution by the founding fathers—and it's under attack.

Under the Constitution, every state sends one representative from each of its congressional districts to the House of Representatives (the number of districts a state has is based on its population). The idea is that this method gives every American an equal voice in the House, regardless of whether they're from a big state or a little one.

Every ten years (after the census), states’ districts are redrawn, theoretically to make sure they remain equal in population. Some states set up nonpartisan commissions to ensure fair redistricting, but others let whichever party controls the state's legislature run the show. It's in the these states that problems tend to arise.

Both parties have a shameful history of abusing this power to deny voters of the other party influence and representation. The party in charge of redistricting can do this in one of two ways: by packing voters they don't like into as few districts as possible (thus keeping the remaining districts for themselves), or by distributing those voters as thinly as possible, diluting their electoral power and smothering their chances of being represented by the candidate of their choice.

Such gerrymandering is all too common, and while it's a clear injustice to those for whom voting is made futile, it also poses a serious threat to the functioning of our society.

It's basic politics that in a society where two parties compete for votes—such as ours—those two parties will converge towards the middle ground, as they try to pick up undecided voters in the center. This natural moderating force ensures that neither party gets too extreme.

However, in a gerrymandered district, the opposite occurs: the dominant party has only itself to compete against, breeding extremism as candidates in red gerrymandered districts try to out-conservative each other and candidates in blue gerrymandered districts try to out-liberal one another. The result is a preponderance of districts represented by fringe politicians immune to reason and unwilling to compromise, and when they get to Congress, the whole country suffers.

Gerrymandering is a travesty of democracy, a betrayal of the Constitution, and a principal driver of polarization—and yet our justice system shows a dumbfounding resistance to doing anything about it.

For centuries, the Supreme Court has declined to rule partisan gerrymanders unconstitutional, even as it declares gerrymanders based on race to be unacceptable. Given that the primary motive behind modern racial gerrymandering is the same as that behind partisan gerrymandering—minority Americans tend to vote Democratic—one has to ask: what's the difference? At their hearts, both cases represent a group of people being denied their right to equal representation, all because of how they vote—a flagrant violation of the first and fourteenth amendments.

Judges often cite one of two main concerns to justify their inaction. Justice Samuel Alito concisely explained the first when he fretted that ruling on a gerrymandering case would "invite the losers in the redistricting process to seek to obtain in court what they could not achieve in the political arena,” a view based on a perverse notion of politics in which political parties can and should do everything possible to win, including disenfranchising uncooperative voters. Needless to say, the founding fathers would be appalled by Justice Alito's America.

The second concern is much more reasonable: that, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, there's no "workable standard" by which to measure the 'gerrymanderedness' of a district. But, while reasonable, this concern is no longer valid.

Two researchers have come up with a (pretty intuitive) way to measure the impact of gerrymandering. It's called the efficiency gap, and it takes into account how many votes each party wasted. Votes are wasted when they're cast for a losing candidate or for a candidate who already had enough votes to win, and in a fair election, both parties' voters should waste about the same amount of votes.

But in a gerrymandered district, which is inherently biased in one party's favor, voters of one party are virtually guaranteed representation, while voters of the other party are never given a real chance. The dominant party's votes are translated into wins, while many of the opposition party's votes are wasted. This difference in the number of votes wasted by each side is the efficiency gap.

Yawning efficiency gaps are clearly visible in gerrymandered districts across the country, resulting in elections that are about as undemocratic as elections can be. In 2012, Republicans won almost two thirds of the seats in Wisconsin's state assembly, despite losing the popular vote. In North Carolina, there are ten Republican districts and three Democratic districts, even though the state is majority-Democratic. That's not equal representation—it’s far outside the bounds of fair play in the political arena, and the courts' repeated declination to recognize its unconstitutionality flies in the face of representative democracy.

Now that we have a viable way of measuring the impact of gerrymandering on our democracy, we must act decisively. The Supreme Court should rule that robbing voters of their right to choose their own representatives is illegal, and each state should require that redistricting is done either by nonpartisan commissions, or in another way that ensures equal representation.

Doing so will not only bolster justice and democracy in the United States, but will help us reverse decades of increasing polarization—both sorely needed improvements to our republic.

This piece was published by the Twin Cities Times.

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