US voters tackle gerrymandering with gusto. Incumbents are less sure

Patrik Jonsson

As the United States grapples with intense tribal alliances that have seeped into the electoral system, Missouri voters contributed to a banner year for redistricting reform across the country.

The reforms range from Florida, where more than 1 million former felons regained the right to vote, to Michigan, where a citizens’ commission is now tasked with drawing districts. Many are aimed at “removing the interests of incumbents,” University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire writes in an email.

In Jefferson City, Mo., a new state demographer’s office is opening, tasked by voters with drawing competitive state legislative districts to calibrate the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” guarantee.

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Contrasted with partisan map-drawing that creates fantastical district shapes – dubbed the gerrymander in the early 1800s – having a nonpartisan social scientist draw electoral maps “sounds like the way things should be done, based on population size, contiguity of blocks of people, and to avoid these weird fractal geometries that a lot of districts end up looking like,” notes Corey Sparks, a demographer at the University of Texas in San Antonio. “Demographers don’t need to cook the data and cook the demography so they will get reelected.”

Given powerful data and mapping tools available to demographers today, the actual task of precisely dividing citizens into competitive districts shouldn’t be much harder than a graduate level homework assignment, mapmakers say.

Yet it can be a treacherous legal landscape – rived by race, party, gender, and other “communities of interest.”

At the same time, the pulse of reform is fueled by a heightened recognition among many Americans that partisans are “standing over the body [of democracy] with a gun in their hand,” says voting rights expert Michael Li. That means the fight against gerrymandering and the power of incumbency has for many Americans become a fundamental political struggle.

“It is a pitchfork moment,” says Mr. Li, a lawyer at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “People [on both sides of the aisle] don’t like the political class, they think the system is rigged, and they see the way districts are drawn as a big part of that. Ten years ago voters responded to words like gerrymander and redistricting with ‘Bleh.’ Now when you canvass door to door and mention [reform], they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”o

The issue is once again returning to the country’s highest court. The US Supreme Court last Friday took up partisan gerrymandering cases for the second term in a row, this time from North Carolina and Maryland. Lower courts have ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution. But with the retirement of swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, the conservative-leaning court may choose to reverse those decisions and rule that it is not expressly barred by the Constitution.


The practice of trying to gain political advantage through “creative mapmaking,” as Mr. Sparks calls it, dates back to the early 19th century.

And there is skepticism, says Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State law professor, about whether the gerrymander causes dissatisfaction and polarization – or just exacerbates it. Also, the last election, in which Democrats took control of the House, proved that even heavily gerrymandered districts can be overcome by turnout.

However, the speed at which technology joined partisanship to create surgically precise maps took the country by surprise.

“Gerrymandering is not new, but the technology that creates incredible efficiencies at which it can be engineered is pretty new,” says demographer Mark Fossett at Texas A&M University in College Station. The year “2000 is a watershed. By 2010 it is an art form.”

States from Republican-dominated Missouri to Democrat-led Maryland embraced partisan gerrymandering with near glee, creating wild dragon-head shapes aimed at a desired outcome. Lower federal courts found that North Carolina Republicans used “surgical precision” to target minorities when drawing maps, creating bulwarks out of boundaries. (The legality of racial gerrymandering is not up for discussion in the courts: It is always unconstitutional.)

The impacts have been dramatic – and measurable.

In November, Republicans in North Carolina won 10 of 13 congressional seats, despite winning the popular vote by less than 1 percent. After courts hired a nonpartisan mapmaker to redraw gerrymandered maps in Pennsylvania earlier this year, a GOP advantage in the Keystone State of 13 to five congressional seats fell to nine to nine. There, Democrats won 54 percent of the popular vote.

An Associated Press analysis of “efficiency gaps” that measures partisan advantage suggested that in the last election, under non-gerrymandered maps, Democrats would likely have gained even more than the 40 seats in Congress that they did.


Moves by incumbent politicians to limit the power of voters isn’t limited to the gerrymander. In Georgia, Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp refused to recuse himself from his secretary of State job, essentially becoming the referee of his own election. Three days before the election, Mr. Kemp made unfounded accusations of electoral fraud against Democrats on the secretary of State’s website. He won by the narrowest margin since 1966. Meanwhile, all 13 of Georgia’s statewide offices are held by Republicans.

Since the election, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan pushed to curb the power of incoming Democratic governors. And the Florida ballot initiative passed by 65 percent of voters to give the right to vote back to felons (except for those convicted of murder or a sexual crime) is in flux. Under the terms, people should be able to register to vote this week, and the 68 counties have said they will begin registering former offenders. But the new governor has suggested additional legislation would be required and could not be put in place until March at the earliest. More than a million votes are at stake.

The impulse to question voters’ wishes could affect the new Missouri state demographer as well. Missouri Gov. Mike Parsons, a Republican, suggested to The Associated Press that organizations with “deep pockets” and “their own agendas” are behind the voter initiatives. And Missouri Senate president pro tem Dave Schatz said the legislature will look into the legality of the new law. He noted that “there’s a lot more to [the reform initiative] than what the standard person can understand.” Notably, some black lawmakers in the state agree, saying that they are worried about losing seats if the maps become less partisan.

Such incumbent resistance to reform proves “why voters are up in arms,” says Ohio State's Professor Tokaji, author of “Election Law in a Nutshell.” “When you’ve got a political system in which there’s virtually no bipartisan compromise, partisan gerrymandering really means that people who are affiliated with the minority party have zero power.”

In response, some states have established nonpartisan commissions, including California and Washington. But notable this year is that voters in conservative states like Missouri and Utah have joined the reform effort. Sixty-two percent of Missouri voters adopted the Clean Missouri Initiative, a raft of electoral reforms that included the new demographer's job.


That margin is notable in a year in which Missouri voters ousted a centrist, Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, in the same election. “The stakes [are] so much higher now given that there ... are almost no moderates left,” says Tokaji.

Practically, “the impact [of new maps] ... will likely make only a marginal difference in state legislative election outcomes because of the way Democrats and Republicans are distributed around the state,” says Mr. Squire, the Missouri demographer. Voters have sorted themselves, with Democrats congregating in cities and suburbs, while Republicans remain in rural areas. “[Those] patterns will limit the ability to draw more competitive districts except in a few places, mostly in the suburbs outside Kansas City and St. Louis.”

Nevertheless, the state demographer’s office may be able to infuse a greater sense of fairness – and perhaps check partisan passions.

“If you gerrymander, then everything becomes about the primaries, and that drives [politicians] to extremes so that they don’t even get primaried,” says Professor Fossett. “The corrosiveness is that it just turns people into total partisans because they never are faced with having to recognize the concerns of others.”

Conversely, he says, more compact and competitive districts tend to strengthen community bonds given “the presumption that people who live close together share common concerns on a variety of things – from the economy to exposure to hazards like drought and tornadoes. They will have more things in common that are not necessarily partisan in nature.”

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