The loss of competitive districts–and maybe democracy

Those who are closely following this cycle of redistricting are aware of the reduction in the number of competitive congressional seats. Politico, for example, has a story with the title “Kiss Your Swing Districts Goodbye“. The 538 website tracks how many fewer competitive seats there are in each state’s new map, compared to the previous maps; in Texas, the new map has only one “highly competitive” seat (by 538’s calculation), five fewer than last time.

But I don’t think there is (yet) sufficient public appreciation of just how dangerous for democracy this loss of electoral competitiveness is. Indeed, I’ll venture to say that if the United States loses its democracy over the next decade or so, historians and political scientists (presumably in other nations, after the loss of political freedom in this one) will attribute causality to this cycle of redistricting, when the purpose of having elections — so that voters could decide who governs them — was essentially squeezed out of the system. This death of democracy won’t happen all at once (as Levitsky & Ziblatt, among others have explained). But an uncompetitive House of Representatives, engineered through gerrymandering so that one party holds power regardless of what voters want, will be more predisposed to repudiate the results of a presidential election in which that party’s candidate is defeated. It’s at the point at which a president is inaugurated contrary to the tally of the votes in that election, because the party that controls the House has insisted upon inaugurating its candidate, when it would be fair to say that democracy in America has been subverted. Gerrymandering will have set the stage for this.

Throughout this year I’ve argued that Democrats in Congress have made a huge mistake prioritizing their behemoth electoral reform bill, first the “For the People Act” and then the “Freedom to Vote Act”, rather than singling out its anti-gerrymandering provisions for separate consideration. It’s been too easy for Mitch McConnell to demonize the behemoth bill as an effort by the Democrats at their own version of a partisan power grab, and the Democrats have lacked the votes for filibuster reform that would have pushed the legislation through over unified GOP opposition. A filibuster fight confined solely to the issue of gerrymandering, and the urgent need to eliminate this cancer from the body politic, might have looked very different–much harder for McConnell to demonize.

With the Washington Post’s latest story today on Senator Sinema’s refusal to modify the filibuster for electoral reform, the question arises (at least in my mind) whether it is now too late for a last-ditch effort at a Senate debate focused specifically and exclusively on the distinctive risk for democracy caused by gerrymandering. Maps in many states already have been drawn. But if Congress were to enact legislation before the end of this calendar year that required states to draw new maps that eliminate uncompetitive districts caused by gerrymandering, presumably states would need to redraw the lines to conform to the new federal standards.

If the Senate fails to enact anti-gerrymandering legislation (as unfortunately must be predicted), I for one will assign blame to the leadership of the Democratic Party in Congress (and not just to Republicans, or Sinema and Manchin) for failing to pursue a legislative strategy that required focus on this singularly important issue.

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