This week, the Senate is holding a vote to open debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, Senator Joe Manchin’s attempt to gain bipartisan support for basic voting protections. The act is designed to remedy the Supreme Court’s failure to address a partisan gerrymandering crisis, limit state legislators’ use of restrictive election laws to insulate them from accountability, and protect the country from another state legislative–based coup attempt in 2024. Can our democratic institutions be protected against future attacks?
In early 2016, our research team published Gerrymandering in America, an account of the extreme partisan gerrymandering that occurred in the 2011 redistricting cycle for the House of Representatives. Despite assertions that there is no objective standard by which gerrymandering can be judged, we showed how the scientific principle of symmetry provides a judiciable standard to identify and remedy vote dilution claims. Our analysis also showed that allowing state legislatures to effectively determine the composition of the House precipitated this constitutional crisis.
This year, we released Gerrymandering the States: Partisanship, Race, and the Transformation of American Federalism, a book in which we demonstrate how state legislatures have gerrymandered themselves into bulwarks of biased representation. Specifically, although both major parties are guilty of partisan gerrymandering when they control districting, in the states where the Republican Party controls the districting process, gerrymandering is more extreme. In particular, conditions of racial segregation facilitate “packing” urban Democratic voters into less competitive legislative districts.
Extreme bias in state legislatures, which protects incumbent legislators from shifts in partisan support, has had disastrous policy consequences. In addition to the passage of more regressive election laws, biased state legislatures were less likely to implement national health care protections, had a measurably worse response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have worse public health outcomes than less biased legislatures. These disparities in policy outcomes fall especially hard on historically distressed communities, both rural and urban.
We also show that two remedies are particularly promising in combating partisan gerrymandering and its consequences. First, independent redistricting commissions (as opposed to those drawn by politicians) produced less biased maps in the 2011 redistricting cycle. We show that prohibiting legislators from choosing their own voters predictably results in less biased districting plans. Unfortunately, in the current redistricting cycle, we already see that partisans are subverting the districting process where they have the capacity and incentive to do so: in Ohio, Republicans on a bipartisan commission took a party line vote to implement their preferred maps on a temporary basis; in Virginia, a bipartisan commission that required consensus also fell apart when Republicans refused to consider Democratic compromises, and the Democrats walked out.
Second, in 10 state legislatures that use multiseat district electoral systems, where two or more candidates are elected from districts, we find that partisan mapmakers drew less biased maps in 2011, compared to those working with single-seat districts. This is ironic, as one of the reasons for adopting single-member districts after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was to prevent Southern Democrats from using one particularly flawed, winner-take-all form of multimember elections to dilute the influence of minority votes. Now, however, it is single-member districts that are being used to discriminate against voters of color through partisan vote dilution. Our research suggests that reasonable forms of multimember districting could be a solution to this.
This is a critically important point as democracy reformers consider changes to improve our democracy. We see a great deal of attention being paid to reforming political party primaries, with New York City and other jurisdictions implementing ranked choice voting (RCV) in single-seat elections. Advocates claim that ranking ballots has great restorative capacity, but such claims are not supported by available science. Ranking votes is likely to produce only incremental change, and there is no consensus as to whether single-seat RCV would even be a positive reform.
In our view, any reform efforts that do not squarely address the Supreme Court’s erosion of voting protections for voters of color, and do not address authoritarian efforts to seize power through partisan gerrymandering, are not worth the time and effort it would take to implement them. We do not have time to get this wrong.
Our first priority for strengthening democracy must be to build organizational capacity in the communities being targeted by regressive election laws, and to reach out to the millions of Americans who have been left behind in the data-heavy analytics of modern campaign tactics. We must also reduce the cost of voting in the United States, which contributes to our abysmally low voter turnout. National election standards such as those found in the Freedom to Vote Act, would expand ballot access and protect electoral integrity for voters regardless of which state they live in.
Once we have secured basic voting rights, then we should consider reforms with the collaboration and consent of voters. Several other electoral system reforms, including open list proportional representation, possibly in conjunction with localized nominating districts, would truly open up party competition while weakening state legislative capacity to gerrymander Congress.
Our collective expertise on the study of American politics suggests that the coalition that supports reform is at least as important as the reform itself, and that the revitalization of democracy in America, if it happens, will be a function of those who are included in the effort.