Gerrymandering – Hot Button Issue in 2018
Orcas Island, WA – How about a quickie quiz on this year’s elections? Question – What do states as politically dissimilar as Utah, Michigan, Colorado and Missouri have in common in the 2018 election?
Not House or Senate races. Nothing that obvious. No, the unique similarity is that in those four states, People Power is on the warpath, pressing for systemic reform. Voters in Utah, Michigan, Colorado and Missouri are so fed up with politicians’ rigging elections that they have put gerrymander reform on the ballot next November.
Each state is giving its voters the opportunity to decide whether to let elected politicians keep on drawing election district maps to keep themselves and their party in power, or whether to turn over election mapping to a politically balanced independent commission in order to create a more level playing field and give voters a realistic choice in future elections.
Action in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina
It’s amazing how partisan gerrymandering has become a hot button issue in 2018. Stacking the deck in elections by manipulating district lines is an old game in American politics. But rarely has it become such a contentious, front-burner issue at the grass roots, as it has this year. Not just in those four states, but in other pivotal states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina.
Ohio voters have already taken a pro-reform stand. They put so much heat on the state legislature that Ohio lawmakers produced a bipartisan gerrymander reform plan and the voters passed it in May by a hefty 75% majority. In Pennsylvania, the state supreme court has shaken up this year’s congressional elections not only by rejecting as unconstitutional the redistricting plan adopted by the Republican legislature in 2011, but by redrawing congressional district maps itself, in ways that promise tight races and upsets come November.
In Florida, a gerrymandering reform adopted by a supermajority of 62.9% of Florida voters in 2010 and then held up for several years by court battles, is now reshaping the political landscape in the Sunshine State. In 2016, it helped engineer the ouster of five incumbents. More changes are in the wind this year.
In North Carolina, an anti-gerrymander lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters, NAACP and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice is back before a three-judge federal district court. In earlier decisions, the three-judge panel ruled in favor of the voters’ challenge to the Republican gerrymander in that state. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the case to be reviewed at the district level, and now that case seems back on a fast track toward the nation’s highest court.
“The People of Michigan Have Been Locked Out”
What is striking about this year’s citizen rebellions against gerrymandering is how quickly they were mobilized and mushroomed. In Michigan, a grass roots movement spread like wildfire from a single Facebook post by Katie Fahey a 28-year-old grad student, who was fed up with elections being rigged by politicians in the Wolverine State.
In 2011, Michigan’s Republican-led legislature drew district maps that enabled Republicans running for Congress in 2012 to harvest almost two-thirds of the state’s Congressional seats while winning less than half of the statewide popular vote. The numbers were a travesty. Republican candidates for Congress in 2012 won a little over 45% of the statewide popular voter but wound up with 64% of the House seats.
Lawmakers turned a deaf ear to calls for reform. ”The people of Michigan have been locked out,” protested Katie Fahey. “It’s time for us to draw the line.”
When crowds thronged to her Facebook post, Fahey formed two movements, Count MI Vote and Voters Not Politicians. They began circulating petitions calling for a popular vote on a plan to have Michigan’s election maps drawn by an independent 13-member commission – 4 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 5 independents, none of them lawmakers or lobbyists.
Bingo! That idea resonated at the grass roots. In four short months, Voters Not Politicians collected 450,000 signatures, far more than enough to put gerrymander reform on the Michigan ballot.“This is a campaign built for and by the people with our state,” says Fahey, “and I’ve seen it grow from a group of strangers to a network of passionate citizens joined together to create something better for Michigan.”
Missouri Idea: A $5 Lid on Lobbyists
Much the same happened in Colorado, Missouri and Utah. In Colorado, two reform groups, Fair Districts Colorado and People Not Politicians, joined forces behind a proposal for a 12-member tri-partisan independent commission. One striking feature: Colorado’s plan requires the commission to create politically competitive districts – not favoring either party. What’s more, the final maps must win a two-thirds commission majority, ensuring that no party can dominate the process.
The Missouri plan has a few different wrinkles plus an extra attraction – a $5 maximum on campaign donations by lobbyists. Very quickly the Clean Missouri movement rolled up 350,000 signatures. Said one Missouri farmer. “We’re not waiting on the politicians and lobbyists to fix themselves. We can all see how big money drives the agenda. And we’ve had enough.”
“Better Boundaries” to Avert a Political Cold War
Utah’s reform movement – called Better Boundaries – has bipartisan roots and sponsorship. Its co-chairs are Ralph Becker, former Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, and Jeff Wright, a former Republican state lawmaker and candidate for Congress. As in the other states, the Utah plan calls for an expert non-partisan commission to draw maps.
Wright concedes that in Utah gerrymandering helps his own Republican Party, but in other states, he points out, Democrats have the edge. In Cold War terms, evoking the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Russia, Wright warns that the danger today is that partisan gerrymandering by both parties risks “mutual assured destruction” and fatal damage to American democracy. The answer, argues Wright, is to set up independent non-partisan redistricting commissions.
The test, of course, is whether enough voters agree. But given this year’s vote in Ohio and earlier popular referendums in states from Arizona to Florida, the odds are that gerrymander reform will play well with voters next fall. There’s no question that millions of voters are riled up and demanding a fix for American democracy.