The partisan drawing of legislative districts, otherwise known as "gerrymandering," must be stopped if we ever wish to reverse the awful political gridlock that has engulfed our nation. A recent court decision may help put us on that path.
While the thought of ending gerrymandering might have been "pie in the sky" in the past, a judicial decision in a U.S. District Court in Wisconsin (Witford v. Nichol) this past November may have turned this entire issue on its head. The court invalidated the district lines drawn by the state legislature on the grounds that they were too partisan.
Just this week, news surfaced that the Supreme Court has announced that it will deliberate upon this very issue. Reformers can rejoice if the Supreme Court upholds this case.
Usually, in the past, the basis for invalidating the lines centered on the disenfranchisement of minority voters. In most other cases, however, courts demurred to the legislative branch. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said, usually "Courts ought not enter this political thicket."
If one set of lines can be disqualified for their overly partisan influence, then so too can potentially almost every set of lines in the nation. This relatively new criterion gives hope to those reformers who have been stifled in their efforts to make the redistricting process more equitable for voters and for elected officials not serving in the majority.
This is why Michael Li, counsel to the Brennan Center for Justice, labeled the Wisconsin case: " ... the most significant gerrymandering challenge in thirty years."
Reformers should not be deterred by the fact that these challenges have been waged primarily by Democrats who've been losing ground on state-level elections around the country. In fact, I'm a strong supporter of Gov. Scott Walker, whom the plaintiffs are targeting with their lawsuits. But we need to recognize that, in the long term, partisan gerrymandering is dangerous for both sides of the aisle.
Gerrymandering has had an insidious effect on our ability to get things done on both the state and federal levels. Most of the time, it is the party in power trying to marginalize its opposition. But, unbeknownst to many, legislators in the minority sometimes play along.
The process is one-half partisanship and one-half pure self-preservation. Legislators representing adjoining districts, even if of different party affiliations or philosophies, will often scheme together.
The Republican will seek to siphon off as many GOP voters from his neighbor's Democratic district. The Democrat next door will be happy to oblige so long as the Republican transfers over his Democratic strongholds.
While these legislators end up believing that they have insulated themselves from a general election challenge, they have simultaneously made themselves far more vulnerable to a primary attack. Consequently, Republicans are pressured to appeal far more to their conservative base, while Democrats maximize their pandering to the left. Those in the middle become further marginalized and less potent a force.
There is a way to reverse this. Many jurisdictions are instituting reforms that would remove the power to draw lines from the politicians and transfer it to a panel of truly independent individuals, often a politically balanced board of retired judges.
As the then-county executive of New York's largest suburban county, I drafted and passed a law in 2007 that did just that. I persuaded legislators from both parties that it was in their mutual interests to prevent the other side from trying to draw them out of their districts. The key was to place the effective date out far enough where there is an uncertainty as to which party would be in control at that time. This incentivized both sides to hedge their bets.
Our logic worked — at least for a while. As I was leaving office in late 2011, the Democrats who just regained control of the legislature in that November election were again certain that they would control the lines. So what did they do? They disingenuously and shamelessly revoked the same law they had proudly touted as a needed good government reform just four years earlier.
It became clear to me at that time that it is indeed quite unlikely these needed reforms will ever come from elected officials whose only priority is self-preservation. If you want this unseemly partisan gerrymandering process discarded on the ash heap of history, read the Wisconsin case and consult a public interest lawyer to initiate litigation in your jurisdiction.
Steve Levy is executive director of the Center for Cost Effective Government. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a New York State Assemblyman, and host of "The Steve Levy Radio Show."
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