I’ve been troubled by the spate of stories in recent weeks about the possibility of the Democratic Party being able to counter-gerrymander itself to something of a draw in this decade’s redistricting wars. The point of elections, as I see it, is not to benefit one or more of the political parties (or politicians generally), but instead enable voters to choose their representatives in an overall system that optimally aggregates their collective preferences into a workable government for the polity. From that perspective, it’s just as worrisome when the Democratic Party draws districts to give itself an advantage at the expense of the electorate’s collective preferences as when the Republican Party does the same.
Given this background, I was particularly concerned to see this morning Rep. Jamie Raskin’s defense of the Democratic Party’s gerrymandering as a means of protecting America’s electoral democracy from the current (and very severe) threats its facing from ex-president Trump and his allies. Here’s the relevant passage from the Politico story: ‘“There has been a sense in the caucus, given that we view this as an election to defend democracy against insurrection and coups, that we have to do everything we can do,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), describing the party’s more aggressive redistricting posture.’
With great respect for Rep. Raskin (a fellow election law professor as part of his career), I think this is a severely mistaken position. The practice of partisan gerrymandering is fundamentally antithetical to the principles and reasons for holding democratic elections. One cannot save democracy by destroying it. The strategy reminds of me of a certain purported defense of America’s bombing missions in the Vietnam War.
More fundamentally, I believe that the practice and especially the mindset of partisan gerrymandering contributed to the conditions that caused the insurrectionist plot on January 6, 2021. The House Republicans who orchestrated the plan to object to Biden’s valid victory regardless of the electoral choice that the voters actually made were themselves beneficiaries of the Republican Party’s especially aggressive gerrymandering in the 2010 redistricting cycle. Even more, the basic attitude that motivates partisan gerrymandering is a desire to hold power despite the electorate’s desire to make a different choice. It is this perniciously anti-democratic attitude that caused House Republicans to lead the effort, in conjunction with Trump’s own desires, to abuse the Twelfth Amendment and Electoral Count Act process for the purpose of trying to secure Trump a second presidential term that he did not win–because the voters chose Biden instead.
For the Democratic Party now to engage in its own aggressive partisan gerrymandering will not engender a genuine democracy in which the wishes of the electorate control representative democracy. Instead, it will only further entrench the truly corrosive idea that politics, including party-engineered electoral processes, is all about partisan power-grabbing. No wonder more and more Americans are giving up on the idea of democracy altogether (at least according to what public opinion polls having been telling us lately).
Also, as I said and wrote throughout 2021 (and continue to firmly believe), the idea that keeping the Democratic Party in power is the way to save America’s small-d democracy is a dangerous and self-contradictory strategy. With or without gerrymandering, Republicans may become the majority party in the House–and perhaps the Senate as well–because that’s what an accurate count of validly cast ballots reveals. To safe democracy requires a set of institutions that enables Republicans to have a turn at governance if that’s what the validly cast and counted ballots dictate.
For this reason, if the Democratic Party truly wants to safeguard America’s small-d democracy, and doesn’t merely want to maximize the chances of itself holding power, it needs above all to work with–and attempt to grow–the cohort of responsible Republicans who accept the premise that competitive electoral democracy entails the political parties taking turns depending on the changing preferences of voters. As I’ve written throughout the past year, this approach means prioritizing electoral reforms that alter the institutional dynamics, so that Trump’s anti-democratic faction of the Republican Party can’t control through the party primary process which Republican candidates are on November’s general election ballot. This is why Alaska’s new “top 4 with RCV” system is such a significant reform to watch, and why Democrats in Congress should be prioritizing a “majority winner rule” for congressional elections. It’s also why, as I argued repeatedly in 2021, Democrats in Congress should have singled out the anti-gerrymandering provisions of H.R.1 and had a filibuster fight over the need for structural fairness in the electoral process, so that electoral outcomes most appropriately match the electorate’s preferences.
On gerrymandering, the Washington Post got it right in their most recent editorial on the topic:
“The problem is not just the disproportionate number of seats one party might win; it is also that the politicians elected under these maps face less popular accountability than they should. The nation’s policies are determined not by median voters, who should call the shots, but by electorates that have been artificially skewed district by district. Parties that gerrymander can more easily impose radical ideologies, spurn compromise and ignore the majority’s wishes.”
I recognize that the struggle to protect America’s democracy from Trump and his authoritarian threat must be multi-faceted, and the stakes are extraordinarily high. It’s not too much to say that self-government itself is at stake. But that is precisely why partisan gerrymandering, which is so antithetical to the essence of self-government, should never be part of the pro-democracy effort.