The implications of the recent Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering creates a threat to our system of government. Although the Constitution guarantees a “republican form of government,” the court’s decision puts no constraints on rigging future elections. Elected officials will get to choose their constituents.
In summary, gerrymandering is when politicians draw political districts in order to favor themselves or their party. If you want an example, Google "Goofy kicking Donald Duck district."
Two lower federal courts found that extreme gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina was unconstitutional. The cases were appealed to the Supreme Court.
In North Carolina, Republicans received as little as 49 percent of the statewide vote, but won 10 of the 13 congressional seats. In Maryland, Democrats redrew the lines to get seven of the eight seats, while never exceeding 65 percent of the vote.
In analyzing the North Carolina districts, one outside map maker developed 3,000 separate maps using the state's criteria. None of them produced as many Republican seats as the map adopted by the state.
That result should be no surprise, as the criteria legislators used in creating the districts was "to maintain the present 10-3 partisan makeup." Asked why that was important, the legislator responsible stated, "because I don't believe it's possible to get to 11." A small group gets to predetermine which party wins elections. You have the right to vote, but your representative will be selected by the party. The court’s response: OK by us.
The majority of the court effectively admitted that the states created unconstitutional maps. But they weren’t comfortable with adopting guidance on what was unconstitutional. They noted that some state courts, and lower federal courts, had identified such guidelines. They felt it was best to have politicians decide which party should have how many seats than pick any guideline. Talk about foxes guarding chicken coops.
The court allowed state courts to make guidelines. However, some courts are run on a partisan basis. Most states don't allow citizen initiatives. So there is no way for many citizens to force a change on those who ostensibly represent them. If you think elected officials are unresponsive now, wait until they have no competition in elections.
The effects of extreme partisan gerrymandering go beyond undermining representative government where it occurs. Pre-determined partisan composition in any state skews representation nationally. The court’s decision incentivizes states to tilt elections in order to counter the actions of other states. This undermines the popular will or, what the Declaration of Independence called "the consent of the governed."
Blatant gerrymandering also demonstrates a lack of faith that those who hold power have in average citizens. Instead of demonstrating why they should hold sway, officials contort the process to ensure they hold power. “The exercise of absolute power” is a textbook definition of tyranny.
The alternative is not proportional representation. Strong or weak candidates should overperform or underperform in their districts. Critically, people should have confidence that the outcome is not predetermined by partisan hacks with highly refined technology.
Iowa's law on legislative districts is viewed as a national model, and should be considered for use elsewhere. It prohibits taking partisan data or incumbency into consideration in drawing districts. Iowa law recognizes that the people are sovereign, not parties or incumbents.
The same map that gave Iowa three Republican congressmen last year gave it three Democratic members this year. The Cook Political Report identifies only 21 "tossup" House districts nationally. Three of them are in Iowa.
In the course of 10 years, the state Senate went from a 32-18 Democratic advantage to a 32-18 Republican advantage. Those swings were due many factors, none of which was redistricting abuse. Such a situation increases the legitimacy of those who are elected.
Iowa should keep its existing law in place. As the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, however, “Iowa’s unique plan is statutory, not constitutional. Thus, it is always subject to repeal."
Office holders and candidates should be pushed to maintain the system. After all, the Supreme Court has now opened the door to the worst abuses possible.
Next week: Charese Yanney
A Sioux City resident, Steve Warnstadt is government affairs coordinator for Western Iowa Tech Community College and a former Democratic state senator. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of one son and one daughter.