Last December, a political scientist named John Kennedy stunned the courtroom in Harrisburg when he revealed a map of Pennsylvania’s seventh congressional district. After explaining that two large voter regions, which geographically had no business being connected, were held together by nothing more than a steakhouse, he successfully swayed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to act on Constitutional grounds. The court ordered the General Assembly to submit a new map that will go into effect for the upcoming midterm vote to protect “free and equal elections.”
The decision was heartening for those who cherish the guarantees laid out in the Constitution, but it also opened the eyes of the public to an unethical practice known as “packing.” This strategy, utilized by politicians across the nation, involves saturating specific districts with voters who historically support the opposition party.
Politicians will gladly concede a few of these districts to landslide defeats to limit the impact of these voters. They will then sprinkle the remaining “opposition voters” across many districts they anticipate they can win by smaller margins in spite of these votes. This allows the politicians to maximize the influence of their party state-wide and nationally but, in the process, they marginalize what should be a significant voting force.
The civil rights issue of our day is the same as the civil rights issue of the early to mid-20th century: the biggest obstacle to equity and access for all is still voting. The ideal that every person in this nation has an equal say in the systems and structures that define “fairness” is not only an unrealized goal; it is actively being suppressed. If you believe that every citizen’s vote should hold equal value, then you should be outraged like I am.
Pennsylvania is not the only state where partisan map drawing, known as gerrymandering, has been identified. In the case of Gill v. Whitford (2017-2018), the Supreme Court listened to an argument made by three federal judges that the Wisconsin state assembly plan, adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011, was unconstitutional in that it violated both the Equal Protection Clause and the plaintiff’s First Amendment freedom of association. There was clear evidence of both “bad intent” and “bad effect” with regards to the layout of the district voting map. Although the case was dismissed for lack of standing, it is being reviewed by the lower courts.
Gerrymandering is not a tactic used solely by Republicans. There are cases, such as in the state of Maryland, where Republicans contend, and rightly so, that Democrats have carefully constructed voting districts to minimize the voice of Republicans.
It’s hard to tell either side to stop this game as long as the other one is playing it. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, to his credit, has asked Democrats across the nation to resist the urge to gerrymander back. It’s a hard pill for Democrats to swallow, however, when you consider that the overwhelming majority of the cases being reviewed by the courts regard marginalized groups, typically Democratic voters, being methodically silenced.
This harsh reality is no more evident than in the case of North Carolina. Federal judges recently ruled that twenty-eight of the state’s legislative districts were “unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.” In other words, African Americans in North Carolina, typically a threat to Republican rule, have been systematically and purposefully lumped together in “giveaway” districts to limit their influence while disregarding the urgency of issues that plague their communities.
This nation will never be a true democracy unless the voices of all individuals hold equal weight. Powerful politicians, with the help of major corporations and wealthy donors, have failed the most vulnerable members of our society by ensuring that there are systems in place that prioritize the interests of those who can offer the most financial support over the interests of those with the greatest needs.
In spite of marginal progress made in the courts and current efforts being made by leaders such as former President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, The Brennan Center for Justice predicts that Democrats will need to win the national popular vote by 11 points in order to gain control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming midterm elections.
Imagine a party receiving 55 percent of the national vote, but having to be subservient to the party that gained 45 percent of the nation’s support! This is the current political reality because of carefully-crafted maps that have been produced by politicians to promote the long-term power of select individuals over the needs of the nation.
What can be done?
You can begin by putting pressure on local politicians to support the creation of voting district maps that properly represent the political composition of your state. Additionally, you can make a small contribution to organizations, such as The Brennan Center for Justice, The National Democratic Redistricting Committee or Every Voice, that are involved in political messaging and fight for judicial action that advances the needs of underrepresented communities. Finally, you can go door-to-door and provide individuals with this information and make certain that those most negatively affected by the current system get out and vote for their interests.
Your involvement is a step in the right direction. People, not money and power, are what politicians should work for. Wealthy corporations and politicians who prioritize power over public service can only achieve their ends when the voices of the marginalized working class, which includes the most vulnerable among us, are silenced.
Righteous outrage, not despair. Justified action, not acceptance. These should be the American norms, like they were during the civil rights movements of the 20th century.