The Easy Way and The Hard Way

Gerrymandering, and fighting fire with fire

Gerrymandering is legitimately corrosive to functioning democracy in all the obvious ways, which is why responsible people around the country have increasingly abolished it through independent redistricting reform. But today, even after more than a decade of redistricting reform activism in North Carolina, the prospects for that reform are arguably dimmer today than they’ve ever been.

This week, the NCGOP’s in-house media organ, the Carolina Journal, published a story about the upcoming North Carolina redistricting process. They plan to draw a 10 R/4 D Congressional map, drawn to suit the GOP and its priorities, and will find a way to justify it using the new Census data.

It stands to reason that the legislative maps won’t be much fairer.

In NC’s progressive circles, anti-gerrymandering activism is ubiquitous and unanimously popular. Our own polling confirms that the public at large, and across party lines, shares the same sentiment. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Republicans are playing power politics. The maps Republicans have drawn make their legislative majority all but invincible, and thus they pay no real cost for gerrymandering skullduggery. So they’re going to deliver as many Congressional seats for the GOP as possible, and we’re going to deal with it.

Talk in a language they understand

Let’s be clear about something: there’s no such thing as “bipartisan redistricting reform.” There just isn’t. Republicans are flatly uninterested, and it’s arguable whether they ever have been. The people involved in issue advocacy around this are extremely smart, and understand this quite well, but it’s worth pointing out anyway: there is no bipartisan path to independent redistricting, either in North Carolina or, these days, any other state. The battle lines are drawn.

So when persuasion fails, the only other alternative is to inflict “costs” to the other side for bad behavior. As they say, a good offense is the best defense. And this week, we saw the first signs that some Democrats in other blue states have grasped that.

Gerrymandering can go both ways.

What if, to offset Republican cheating in states like North Carolina, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, Democrats in Illinois or New York jammed the maps in their states? It would certainly be easy to find ways to eliminate Republican Congressional districts, particularly with New York losing a seat in reapportionment. If it’s to be a matter of exercising raw gerrymandering power, both sides can play that game.

Democrats have fewer options to deploy here, having effectively unilaterally disarmed in many states. Because abolishing gerrymandering is a popular issue among progressives, many blue states have moved to independent commissions for redistricting. Vote-rich blue states like California, Colorado, Washington, New Jersey and Virginia have taken the whole process out of political hands, removing it as a retaliatory weapon. While that is certainly good for democracy, it weakens Democrats’ bargaining position vis-a-vis GOP gerrymandering elsewhere. Nevertheless, there are several blue states where this remains an option.

Blue-state Democrats should seriously consider that option. The modern GOP may be forced to negotiate only through the same power politics it is inflicting in states where it controls redistricting.

Game theory and democracy

Anyone can see how this game plays out.

  • Democrats gerrymander to punish Republican gerrymanders, and both sides cry foul.

  • GOP voter suppression and gerrymandering, aided by right-wing judges, shifts into warp speed

  • Blue states get bluer; red states get redder; polarization increases

  • More rules get broken, norms get shattered, and destabilization increases

In that scenario, there are precious few “off-ramps” to a toxic cycle of retribution, score-settling and imagined political victimization on both sides. This whole situation gets worse. This is the “Hard Way.”

There is another path, however.

There’s been a good deal of debate on both sides about H.R. 1, the “For the People Act” that the U.S. House passed on a party-line vote last month. H.R. 1 would be the most sweeping advance for voting rights in sixty years. It is not a perfect bill - it doesn’t do everything Democrats would like, but it also won’t make the sky fall, crops fail or summon swarms of locusts, as Republicans complain. One of the important things it would do, however, is require all states to adopt nonpartisan redistricting commimssions, which would be a massive qualitative improvement in American elections.

The United States has a long history of the federal government intervening when state governments fail in their duty to uphold Americans’ rights to free and fair elections. No one knows that better than we do in the South. Moreover, it is a very good thing that the federal government has. Right-wing defenders of the status quo may not like it, but that is because they are beholden to a corrupt and broken system that has gotten us to where we are today.

This is the “Easy Way.” And it won’t be easy. It would most likely mean ending the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, or at least finding some plausible compromise that could win 50 votes. But it is fundamentally a legislative solution, and one that provides an off-ramp through the few institutions that still remain intact.

Whatever happens, America is reckoning now with the question of power in a way we haven’t in generations: what it means, who should have it, and on what terms. There is a way to grapple with this question that leaves us stronger as a constitutional democracy, with cleaner and fairer elections, and guaranteeing both sides of the nation’s deep partisan divide with equal ability to translate voter support into governance. And then, there’s another path that doesn’t.

Everyone knows what the right thing to do here is. Let’s just hope that enough people have the courage to prioritize that before their tribal allegiances.

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