Missing the point on gerrymandering


As y’all know, I’m no fan of Identity Politics. Often, though, I seem to fail to explain why to the satisfaction of all my readers. Let me try again.

Today, I eagerly called up an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that was headlined, “The voting fix that cannot wait: Stopping partisan gerrymandering.” I did so harrumphing to myself, Yes, yes, quite right…

But it wasn’t quite right at all. The writer seemed to fail to understand why gerrymandering is a problem, one that is perverting our politics and tearing the country apart. He starts out this way:

The recent wave of voter suppression laws has rightly drawn much attention. But another, even more pernicious wave of anti-voter laws will begin shortly: the redrawing of congressional maps. Unless Congress acts quickly, Americans are on the verge of some of the most aggressive gerrymandering in the country’s history. Inevitably, communities of color, which provided almost all of the country’s growth over the past decade, will bear the brunt of this anti-democratic line-drawing….

His misconception of the problem with the way we redistrict wasn’t confined to his lede. He kept coming back to it again…

Such a ban — along with beefed-up remedies for abuses and uniform standards for drawing maps, including strengthened protections for communities of color — would amount to the most consequential federal redistricting legislation in history….

And again…

What can we expect going forward? In the South, where most of the redistricting hot spots are located, gerrymanders historically have come at the expense of communities of color. This cycle could be even worse….

And again…

Federal legislation would transform how congressional districts are drawn, stepping in where the Supreme Court has stepped out, to restore fairness to the process and strengthen frayed legal protections for communities of color. It also would make it easier and faster for voters to challenge politically or racially discriminatory maps in court, and for the first time require meaningful transparency in a process that historically has taken place behind closed doors….

“Color” appears five times in the piece. Worse, there’s not a mention of “extremism” or “radicalization.” Which, of course, is the real problem with letting the party in power draw the lines for the next decade’s elections: It not only turns primaries into the real election, but causes those primaries to be contests to see which candidate can best appeal to the most committed extremists — the most loyal voters in such party contests. And election after election, the incumbents go farther and farther out on the wings in order to chase away nuttier opponents in the next primary. The members of the two parties give up talking across the aisle, and our republic falls apart.

And if you make the conversation about race, you help them do it. We’ve seen this in every reapportionment since 1990. That’s when Republicans discovered that if they draw a few more “majority-minority districts,” they can create a LOT more unnaturally white districts. Herding all the minorities into (as we’ve seen in South Carolina) a single congressional district, for instance, guarantees that the rest of the state’s delegation will be (with the occasionally brief exception such as the one we saw in the 1st District from 2018 to 2020), fully Republican.

And in election after election, the incumbents and certainly their challengers get more and more extreme. As we saw during the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus stages, leading to the insanity of Trumpism. And now we have a crowd lining up to toss out Tom Rice for the sin of failing to worship the idiot who is their master with sufficient ardor.

Bottom line, if you make it about race, you not only fail to address the real problem, but you can make it worse. As we’ve seen.

What we need is diverse districts — diverse in ways that go far beyond the superficial measure of the color of voters’ skins — that reflect entire, real communities. Not “communities of color” (which apparently is this column writer’s favorite phrase) or communities of ideological nutballs, but true communities that include all people, and elect representatives who try in good faith to serve all of those people.

That’s the only way to save the country from gerrymandering…

11 thoughts on “Missing the point on gerrymandering

  1. Lynn Teague

    Gerrymandering is indeed pushing our politics into ever more extreme wings. Too often, compliance with the Voting Rights Act is used as an excuse for that gerrymandering. This is nonsense. VRA compliance does not require the kind of packing we see in some South Carolina districts.

    Unfortunately, both parties have contributed to this situation in South Carolina. Incumbents of both parties want a “safe” district, one that requires minimal effort for them to stay in office. Matt Saltzman of the Clemson Math Department directed a grad student study of South Carolina’s districts. They have some partisan bias, but it is not extreme. It seems that most of the packing that happens is a product of incumbent protection, not party protection.

    Self-interest is a powerful motivator. One party official who testified before the Senate redistricting hearing in Columbia said everything is fine, no change is needed, because “the parties work well together on this in South Carolina.” Well, yes, I agree, they do. There have long been reports of legislators trading neighborhoods on their common boundaries to make their own reelection more certain. Go to https://my.lwv.org/south-carolina/electoral-democracy-issues/redistricting-sc-2021-people-powered-fair-maps-south-carolina for maps of what this has done in South Carolina. The result is noncompetitive districts for both parties — the legislators have cut voters out of the process. You can vote in November — it just won’t mean anything.

    Who has been empowered? The 8-10% of voters who show up for partisan primaries, often the most extreme in their parties, become the arbiters of policy. We don’t need color-blind redistricting, and we do need VRA compliance to ensure minority representation, but packing (the common term for jamming every possible member of a minority into one district) is excessive.

    Sometimes this is justified by saying that even without packing the adjacent districts wouldn’t be competitive. However, they would be more diverse, less extreme, and less poisonous to our overall political climate. Over and over again we see reliable public opinion polls indicating that the majority of South Carolinians do not hold positions as extreme as some of what is happening at the State House. This is a major reason that is happening. The majority doesn’t matter.

    1. Barry

      BTW –

      anyone following the mess that occurred in Greenville at the GOP meeting?

      Apparently an actual fight broke out. No surprise by right wing media like WVOC in Columbia and other right wing talk shows are not covering it at all. (They only cover Democrat infighting).

      Lynn mentions “the most extreme in their parties” become empowered by the current process

      The Greenville GOP- easily the most powerful GOP group in the upstate has one extremist named Pressley Stutts who is a major power player. Stutts is an individual that is well known in GOP circles. He’s also a well known online “bomb-thrower” who habitually personally insults anyone that doesn’t see things his way. Stutts was involved in the recent physical altercation.

      Of course the Horry County GOP is now fighting each other nearly every day with their meetings sounding like a Jerry Springer reunion show.

      These are the folks pulling the strings.

  2. bud

    Brad, I’ll give you a C for articulating the problem but an F for offering a solution. Yes Gerrymandering is a bit of a problem especially in the elections immediately after census years. The problem seems to dissipate in the out year elections. Voters have this nasty habit of moving around thereby thwarting the partisan map drawers. But the biggest problem is clearly not that both sides are equally guilty. Republicans are far worse. The solution must come at the federal level. Districts should be drawn using a computer algorithm that has just one goal: draw districts that have equal populations in the most geographically efficient way. Elected officials MUST be banned from the process. Now is the time to act while the good guys control Congress. Next year will be too late.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “Districts should be drawn using a computer algorithm that has just one goal: draw districts that have equal populations in the most geographically efficient way. Elected officials MUST be banned from the process.”

      Counterpoint: Passing off critical functions of representative democracy to unaccountable bureaucrats (independent commissions or computers) is not good governance. This task should be handled by elected officials accountable to voters. Legislators that perform the task poorly or corruptly can be voted out of office. Unelected independent commissioners cannot.

      1. bud

        Bryan, isn’t that what we’re doing now? No, I don’t think elected officials should get to choose their voters. As a former bureaucrat I’m in favor of letting those under appreciated professionals do their job.

        1. Barry

          “No, I don’t think elected officials should get to choose their voters.”

          Yep – It’s a great scam.

          We would never accept that rationalization anywhere else- but some have convinced themselves that “unelected” folks can’t be provided oversight/rules/boundaries/parameters just because they don’t fun for election.

          We’ve created a system where the elected officials are essentially untouchable and they’ve convinced some people that the people that could otherwise easily be fired if they do a bad or unethical job are really the ones that are untouchable.

          That’s ridiculous. Thankfully, more and more states are rejecting that thinking.

      2. Barry

        So elected officials should be able to choose the voters that elect them? That’s a great scam – all under the disguise and illusion of fairness and representative democracy.

        It’s amazing we are in a place where people try to make this argument – and have convinced themselves they think it sounds perfectly reasonable. Thankfully, more and more states and even politicians on both sides are realizing that this really makes no rational sense.

        As a recent Reuters report pointed out “Legislators in some states have now use precise voter data and computer modeling to craft electoral maps that systematically maximize the clout of voters who support the party in power and marginalize those who do not. This severely impacts minority groups but also the general population.”

        ” Legislators that perform the task poorly or corruptly can be voted out of office. Unelected independent commissioners cannot.”

        Ohio voters approved, with a 75 percent majority, a state constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan commission to draw district boundaries if the state legislature fails to produce a plan acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. The plan earlier won overwhelming support in Ohio’s legislature.

        Ohio Republican State Senator Matt Huffman admitted that Ohio had to do something because partisan abuse of the process was causing a severe deterioration of the public’s faith in the system. The status quo of leaving it all in the hands of the legislature regardless of the outcome became unacceptable to everyone.

      3. Barry

        Bryan wrote

        “Passing off critical functions of representative democracy ”

        – Note- as a former employee of the SC General Assembly and a state employee for 6 years…

        Critical state functions of democracy in South Carolina are performed are actually performed by unelected people every day of the year- successfully, efficiently, ethically, properly, and is much preferred than letting elected partisans perform those critical functions.

        In the cases where “elected” partisans appear to be running critical elements of democracy, in almost every case, it’s only an illusion. Those that are actually making it work are those employees behind the scenes doing the hard work, addressing the problems, doing the blocking and tackling necessary to make it all work- and put out the fires that occur every day. Not to mention, in almost every case, they are advising the elected representative of what the best practices are – and what should be occurring- and any necessary changes that need to be made.

  3. Ken

    Who’s missing the point here? I submit it’s Brad Warthen, not Michael Li.

    Nowhere in the piece does Li ask that districts be drawn to protect any race. What he is concerned about throughout is that THE PROCESS of drawing district lines be done in a way that is fair to the interests of communities of color.

    Article 5 proceedings under the VRA could have ameliorated some of these concerns. But the conservatives on the Supreme Court eliminated that mechanism. And they did so with Brad Warthen’s applause – because that mechanism supposedly was no longer needed. Li is simply stating that Brad Warthen’s assumption was/is wrong.

    More broadly, I find it interesting that, when it comes to his concerns over so-called “identity politics,” Brad Warthen seems primarily concerned with one coloration of that phenomenon in particular. When the NAACP called an economic boycott of SC over the Confederate flag, for example, Brad Warthen railed against it, saying the boycott would undermine efforts to bring about a resolution. It didn’t. Polls at the time showed public sentiment moved more in favor of removing the flag after the NAACP took that step. Similarly, when Bree Newsome climbed the poll to remove the flag, Brad Warthen railed against that action too, for the same reason. But his concerns were again misdirected. Recently, Gwen Berry, according to him, lost her dignity by what she did. Now the mere mention of “communities of color” sets him ablaze.

    One begins to wonder what exactly Black folks might be allowed to do, in Brad Warthen’s world, to promote and defend their interests.

    1. Barry

      I think it was the “great” Laura Ingraham of Fox News that told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble.”

      She added that we don’t pay athletes and entertainers to offer political opinions.

      EXCEPT, she defended Drew Brees, at the time the Qb of the Saints, when he offered his opinion. She didn’t dare tell him to “shut up and throw”

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