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Nick Berry: Ending gerrymandering can revive democracy

Nick Berry: Ending gerrymandering can revive democracy
Nick Berry is a Capital columnist. (Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Gerrymandering kills democracy, or at least seriously wounds it. Either way, people lose, political parties are corrupted and governments — like America’s government today — are undermined.

Here is how gerrymandering works.

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The party that controls a state legislature, unless it has given up its constitutional prerogative to a nonpartisan commission, can draw boundaries for congressional and state legislative seats. To maximize its seats, that party concentrates the opposition in a few districts while giving itself a modest majority in many seats.

Take Pennsylvania: Commanding 55 percent of the vote, the Republicans have captured 13 seats in the House of Representatives — 72 percent — to the Democrats’ five.

In much of the South, especially Texas, Republicans have gerrymandered so extensively that they’ve controlled the House of Representatives since 2011, even while averaging less than 50 percent of the national vote.

True, we live in the most gerrymandered Democratic state, with that party controlling seven of the eight congressional seats. I live in the 3rd Congressional District. The incumbent, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, is well-respected, but the district lines are the most egregious in Maryland, sprawling over the map like a squashed spider.

As gerrymandering consolidates its grip, you get legislators who cannot compromise with the minority party but instead obey their party’s winning political voting base. They tend to be self-righteous partisan zealots who see opponents as enemies, not worthy of consideration or debate. They know that if they stray from orthodoxy they will likely face a primary challenge from someone more in tune with the party’s commandments.

So there’s more partisan bloc voting in Congress and in states, meaning that there’s less open deliberation of policy and less civility among legislators. The result: more extreme legislation in which special interests, not national or state interests, dominate.

Old-time legislators fondly remember the days when it wasn’t politically risky to vote for the other party’s bill if that legislation served the national or state interest. Partisan debates, even when fierce, were civilized and factual, not personal. Members of Congress and state legislatures could be friends with those across the aisle, dine with them and socialize with their families. Those days are past.

The hostility is even reflected in what the parties call each other. Numerous Republicans refer to their enemy as the “Democrat” Party, showing that it must really tic off the GOP a great deal. Democrats may soon retaliate by calling their opponents the “Republic” Party, indicating that it’s a no-can-do organization.

Gerrymandering is often less pernicious and prevalent in small towns and cities. In Annapolis, Wards 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8 are or should be competitive. Ward 2 has remained consistently Republican recently, but that has more to do with a weak local GOP establishment and candidates than gerrymandering.

Wards 3, 4, and 6 are heavily minority and so far are comfortably Democratic. The mayoral race, like the gubernatorial one, cannot be gerrymandered — in each, there is only one “district.”

But presidential contests can be effected by gerrymandering. Rural Republican states get an electoral vote bonus from their two senators and their tallies are also altered by voter repression. So Donald Trump, even though he lost the popular vote by 3 million nationwide, got to the White House via the solid Bible-belt South, the less-populated Midwest and, most crucially, a few narrow wins in the Rust Belt. George W. Bush did the same in 2000.

A case now before the U.S. Supreme Court challenges the gerrymandering of Maryland’s 6th District. It may have nationwide implications, particularly in many heavily gerrymandered GOP states.

The issue is a quandary for a Republican court. The ruling may well produce a sea change for the House of Representatives, an explosion in competitive races and a huge boost in off-year election turnout — in short, a return to real democracy.

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