The headlines rarely bring good news. Gridlock in DC, the latest presidential insult, children in cages – it’s easy to tune out. But, as last week’s headlines show us, a single day can change everything. Thursday was exactly such a day, as the Supreme Court of the United States delivered two long-anticipated decisions that could dramatically (and permanently) impact the future of our democracy.
The bad news first. The court refused, in a combined case of Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek, to entertain complaints about partisan state-level redistricting efforts. In his decision, Chief Justice Roberts declared that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts”. This essentially returned the issue to the states and their legislatures (and, in most cases, partisan political control).
This decision followed a ruling the previous week in Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, that overturned GOP gerrymandering efforts in VA. In retrospect, we can see that this decision was as much about standing (who can sue?) versus substance (is gerrymandering allowable?). The Virginia decision, while a victory for African-American voters in the state, was simply the calm before the storm.
There was some good news – for now. In Department of Commerce vs. New York, the court shut down attempts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, ruling 5-4 that unless the White House takes extraordinary and immediate actions, the question can’t be added to next year’s census. However, the court’s logic was troubling. In rejecting the Commerce Department’s efforts, Roberts seemed to indicate he was ruling on the Secretary Wilbur Ross’ explanation, not the question itself, claiming a “significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided.”
A call to action!
Together, these decisions paint an ominous picture of one party’s vision of America. They also give us an ideal opportunity to look beyond election day to understand emerging threats to the mechanics of American democracy.
Why does it matter?
Rather than a community selecting their representative, gerrymandering lets a party and candidate choose the potential electorate. This means drawing districts likely to include more supporters while excluding voters the other side. And it helps divide minority votes into smaller, less effective pieces.
Sometimes it backfires. The crazy Dallas county map drawn by Republicans in the Texas state legislature (and shown below) has blown up in their face. Their delicate districts were drawn with typical election patterns in mind. When voter turnout surged and district demographics shifted away from white majority, Democratic victories accelerated. But don’t let one exception fool you – gerrymandering is bad for our communities.
Gerrymandering: a conspiracy in plain sight
The US Constitution lets each state shape their congressional districts. In 31 states – including Texas – it’s done by the state legislature, giving controlling political parties an upper hand. The rest of the states rely on appointed commissions.
It also kicks off a corrosive cycle. A community feels less represented and becomes less engaged. This cedes power to the majority, leading to even less representation and equality. It’s their master plan.
If that sounds conspiratorial, the case of Thomas Hofeller illuminates just such an organized project. The deceased GOP operative was key in both North Carolina redistricting (later found unconstitutional) and ongoing efforts to add a question to the 2020 census that asked about respondent’s citizenship status.
Why is that important?
A weaponized census
The number of congressional districts is apportioned according to Census results, and districts are added and subtracted as populations change. The Trump administration claimed the citizenship question is reasonable, but it’s actually an unprecedented attempt to suppress minority representation. Hofeller’s own 2015 research said as much.
Representation and resources should be driven by need, not status. Roads and bridges don’t care about green cards, neither should the census. The question would have discouraged participation across minority communities regardless of status, for fear of law enforcement intervention. The impact on Texas would have been dramatic, as our non-citizen population is estimated to equal four missing congressional districts.
A cynical last stand
Ultimately, all this scheming is part of a plot to hold back the hands of time and continue ruling as if America hasn’t changed. Rather than remake their party, Republicans work to remake our rules.
Why? Because they are increasingly out of step as a party with the nation as a whole, forcing them to narrow the electorate.
America leads the world in urbanization. Gerrymandering reduces the power of these increasingly progressive and racially diverse urban and suburban areas.
The nation is also increasingly racially diverse. Low minority turn out is weakened even more by gerrymandering.
Finally, today’s electorate is not generationally representative. In Texas, while over 70% of voters 65 and over vote, only 46% of voters 18 – 29 participate, ensuring each election is essentially one or two generations behind. Efforts to thwart automatic registration keep that age gap in place.
Looking for solutions: what can we do?
The opponents of democracy want to rule a nation that no longer exists. Our job is to reclaim a future decided by all Americans, not a carefully selected few. But how? With the courts rejecting Rucho’s claims, they have returned the fight to the people. We cannot expect the courts to save us.
Know that it can be done
Our country’s neighbors in Canada prove that we can move from partisan manipulation to transparent representation. Most relevant? The move to non-partisan commissions that remove politics from the process. So never ever think it’s a fight we can’t win.
Advocate for change
Our first goal is to return the power to the people. Find advocates for reform in your state and learn more about their work. The tide is shifting, but momentum is up to us. In our state, groups like Fair Maps Texas are tirelessly leading the fight.
Educate friends and family
Politics isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but civics should be. The problem of gerrymandering isn’t a partisan issue (both sides have done it), but a direct assault on a core American value. This should be an issue that unites, not divides. The Brennan Center for Justice has excellent information about both redistricting and reform efforts.
Understand the impact of technology
Redistricting has become a technological arms race, with powerful new tools to guide and inform manipulation and suppression. Big data makes it easy to micro-target and aggregate. That same information in the hands of all citizens can help drive breakthrough trust and transparency.
Stay focused on the mechanics
Casting a ballot is a sacred civic institution, but it’s not the only one. We must seek to always hold leaders accountable when they work to reduce representation by any means. We can build trust through transparency, always holding the powerful accountable.
A right and a role for every American
The fight against gerrymandering requires we all become educators, advocates, and agitators. Left unchecked, this cynicism and corruption will undo tremendous gains in outreach and access, especially in increasingly engaged Latino communities. Now more than ever, we must unite to protect not only the vote, but our values and institutions.
To learn more visit www.hectorruiz.com.