When founding the United States as a constitutional democracy, the founding fathers’ inspirations were theoretical — there was no modern republic they were trying to emulate, only theories of the unalienable rights of man and systems of government written and extrapolated by Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu of the Enlightenment. So, it is no wonder there were many “errors” in the original Constitution, lessons that we have now learned. Many, but not all of these have been fixed — and of the problems that still persist, gerrymandering tops the list.
Gerrymandering is the process by which state legislatures redraw congressional districts to favor one party or class. The name is derived from Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts, because of a new voting district that was drawn in the shape of a salamander when he was in office way back in 1812. Gerrymandering has been an American tradition almost as long as apple pie or hot dogs.
Gerrymandering is done in one of three ways: cracking, packing or stacking. Cracking is the process by which a block of type one voters is dispersed into many districts with majorities of type two voters. Packing is the process by which a significant amount of type one voters spread out geographically are put into one congressional district. Stacking is when type two voters are put into a congressional district with some type one voters. If you’re confused, there are great videos online that help better explain it visually, but the gist of these methods is that they all dilute the voting power of U.S. citizens.
As Jordan Ellenberg pointed out in The New York Times, “About as many Democrats live in Wisconsin as Republicans do. But you wouldn’t know it from the Wisconsin State Assembly, where Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats, a bigger majority than Republican legislators enjoy in conservative states like Texas and Kentucky.”
And because of the flagrant self-destructing Wisconsin Republican political elite (Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus both fit that class), the Supreme Court for the first time is hearing a case — Gill v. Whitford — regarding whether partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.
Progress in voting rights has been arduously slow. African-American men gained the ability to cast a ballot in about 90 years (or 190 for those affected by Jim Crow and the KKK’s terrorism). Women gained the ability in about 150 years. The concept of “one person, one vote” wasn’t established until 1962 by Baker v. Carr. While not nearly as famous as Brown v. Board of Education, Baker v. Carr was even more monumental in protecting minority rights, and also the general rights of those ignored by the political elite. This case was strongly cited last year in arguments that all residents be counted in drawing congressional districts — not just eligible voters. It was not a contentious 5–4 ruling nor a tight 6–3; the ruling was unanimous.
Baker v. Carr is one of the most powerful Supreme Court cases, perhaps second only to Marbury v. Madison (allowing judicial review on legislative action). It protects against minority or class based gerrymandering, but not gerrymandering on the basis of political affiliation. But the “one person, one vote” concept should and needs to be applied to political gerrymandering too. Perhaps it should even be extended to allowing proportional representation within the Electoral College.
When we lose faith in democracy, when we believe voting has no consequence, our plebiscite will be erased. For we should not be at the whims of our politicians, but we will be to some extent as long as these (mostly Republican) politicians choose their own voters.
I have no idea how to fix the core issues of the current divisive society, but I do know how to create a semi-functional governing system: protect democratic institutions. Ending gerrymandering won’t solve systemic issues like Democratic concentration in urban areas, the visceral divide between Republicans and Democrats and the corporate corruption of our government, but it will bring us in the right direction.
It will most likely come down to one vote, by one judge, in one court. So, we are all praying for you, Justice Anthony Kennedy, to protect democracy, to ensure our civil rights and to vote against the Republican party which appointed you to the Supreme Court. For the march toward progress is methodical, with obstacles and repellents, but it goes on.