Democrats in Congress have spent years decrying Republican efforts to undermine voting rights, for good reason. But lately, they seem to have abandoned their effort to crack down on the most common and egregious tactic for disenfranchising voters — perhaps because they’re reluctant to give it up themselves.
The polite term for this device is redistricting. A less polite term is gerrymandering. It’s actually voter suppression by another name.
Decennial Census data released last month has started a new round of this anti-democratic mapmaking. Here’s how it works in most states. The majority party draws legislative and congressional districts to maximize their number of seats. District lines split communities, zigzag through neighborhoods and connect far-flung areas that have little in common. Incumbents are protected, challengers can find their homes moved into different districts, and computer modeling turns Election Day into a foregone conclusion.
As a result, few races are truly competitive — and competition is what brings people to the polls. States that are closely divided between Democrats and Republicans end up with lopsided delegations. In Ohio, for instance, Republicans have won 12 out of 16 House seats in every election since the last redistricting, despite never winning much more than half the votes. The saying that legislators now choose their voters more than voters choose their legislators has some truth. One can hardly blame citizens for choosing not to participate.
Congressional Democrats say they want to put an end to this, but the voting rights bill they passed last month didn’t touch it. Instead, the measure would have required states with a history of other forms of voter suppression to get “preclearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing their election rules.
That was the law of the land from 1965 through 2013, when the Supreme Court declared that the basis for determining which states and localities (mostly in the South) needed preclearance was unconstitutional. There’s a strong case for modernizing and restoring preclearance, as Democrats want to do, but Senate Republicans are opposed. So it has been since March, when Democrats passed the For the People Act, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to election reform that included all manner of provisions, including public financing of campaigns.
Parts of the For the People Act might have won Republican backing if Democrats had broken the bill into separate components. One such piece was the bill’s ban on partisan gerrymandering and its creation of independent commissions — composed of an equal number of Democrats, Republicans and independents — to draw district lines. A handful of states have adopted this method, and voters have overwhelmingly backed it in referenda, with support cutting across party lines.
To be sure, winning 10 Republican votes in the Senate for redistricting reform wouldn’t have been easy. Republicans control more state governments than Democrats do and are reluctant to give up their advantage. For the same reason, Democrats failed to support redistricting reform when they controlled Congress and the presidency after the 2008 elections. But some type of redistricting reform stood a fighting chance. Instead, in the months ahead, both Democrats and Republicans will again seek to turn their states as blue and red as possible, by drawing maps that determine election outcomes before any citizen casts a ballot.
The process lends credence to otherwise bogus complaints that elections are rigged. In this respect, they are — and both parties are to blame.
The right to vote is fundamental. It’s being abridged not just by Republican efforts to restrict access to the ballot box, but also by Democratic reluctance to make redistricting reform a higher priority.