By designing districts for partisan advantage, we send the message that winning elections is more important than upholding democracy
On Monday, the Supreme Court kicked back to Wisconsin and Maryland state courts two gerrymandering cases that attempted to establish that legislatures that use gerrymandering to ensure partisan outcomes were acting with unconstitutional bias. In doing so, they have essentially ensured that any constitutional remedies to overly partisan gerrymandering will be years away, if they ever come.
We believe, then, that’s it’s up to us — state legislators — to act on behalf of the constituents that elected us and end partisan gerrymandering on our own.
Partisan gerrymandering has plagued our democracy since the days of the Founding Fathers: The jagged edges of many districts don’t reflect real-life boundaries, like rivers or mountain ranges, but rather exist because someone drew lines with the pernicious purpose of manipulating electoral constituency boundaries to favor one party.
The Apportionment Act of 1842, which divides states into congressional districts, has long been manipulated by both political parties vying for the opportunity to gain control by strategically drawing districts to exclude or include certain voters. Legislators choosing their voters, instead of the other way around, creates the ultimate degradation of trust in government.
Although both parties have been guilty of unfairly reconfiguring districts to their benefit, Republicans have taken the heat in recent years for prominent gerrymandering cases, like in Texas, Pennsylvania and in the Wisconsin case the Supreme Court sent back to the state. (The Maryland case involved Republicans suing over state Democrats’ gerrymandering.) But, in the long run, there are no winners when drawing district lines becomes political sport.
Take it from us two Republican state legislators: Even if our party benefitted, it’s still wrong. By gerrymandering districts, we send the message that winning elections is more important than finding effective policy solutions for all citizens. And when that happens, we lose the trust and confidence of the people we were elected to represent. In America—a model for democracy around the globe—that is unacceptable.
That’s why we’ve already led efforts in our home states of Ohio and Illinois to end gerrymandering.
This spring, in a historic bipartisan deal, voters in Ohio overwhelmingly voted to put an end to partisan gerrymandering as part of a ballot measure that makes it more difficult to redraw legislative districts without the agreement of the other party. This reform, which was first passed by the legislature, keeps communities together by limiting the divisions of counties, townships, and municipalities while still creating reasonably compact districts. Though the current process has benefitted the Republican Party for decades, Republicans actively joined with Democrats and citizen advocates pushing for reform, showing that the health of our democracy is bigger than politics.
While there’s similar, overwhelming bipartisan support for fair maps in Illinois, the approach to tackling gerrymandering is different than Ohio’s. Rather than keeping map-drawing in the legislature, there’s a need to restore integrity to the election process by taking the design of legislative districts out of the hands of politicians to ensure fairness and transparency. This would be done through a proposed independent legislative redistricting commission — appointed equally by the four leaders of the Republican and Democratic caucuses — to lead a detailed review of maps submitted by any Illinoisan who wishes to suggest one. The submitted maps would then be compared to a multi-faced scoring rubric to ensure fair lines have been drawn. Unfortunately, this reform did not advance in Illinois this year.
While we’re leading the call for change in Ohio and Illinois, this is but part of a greater movement to break the barriers of party politics to make government more accessible and transparent to its citizens. But we know that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. States must decide for themselves what works best.
Our nation is on the brink of sweeping change not only as gerrymandering is brought before the nation’s highest court, but also as the next-generation of leadership prioritizes people over partisan politics on the state-level. That’s why, as members of the Millennial Action Project’s Democracy Reform Task Force, we’re banding together with other young state legislators to share our successes and encourage similar reform across the nation. It’s time to end gerrymandering — which protects party politics at the expense of the American people — and allow true democracy to flourish.
Senator Frank LaRose, co-chair of the Millennial Action Project’s Ohio Future Caucus, is currently serving his second term in the Ohio Senate representing portions of Summit County. Representative David Olsen is the State Representative for Illinois' 81st Representative District and a member of the Millennial Action Project's Democracy Reform Task Force.