Panelists disagreed on threat posed by gerrymandered legislative districts
Has gerrymandering so warped voting that it’s actually a threat to democracy? Or is the process of drawing district voting lines simply an unattractive feature of democracy that has to be lived with?
Those were questions recently posed in a symposium on gerrymandering at the University of Georgia School of Law last week.
The political stakes are high in states like Georgia, where Republican lawmakers have drawn district lines meant to give Republicans the best chances of maintaining their majorities in the state’s Congressional delegation and in the state Legislature. They initially did so by undoing gerrymandered districts drawn when Democrats held a majority of the seats.
In Georgia, that means this year’s governor’s race is crucial for both parties, because the state House and Senate will almost certainly remain majority-Republican after this fall’s elections. Under Georgia’s rules, the state Senate and House are charged with approving new Congressional and legislative voting maps, but the Governor has veto power.
About 51 percent of Georgia voters cast ballots for the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, in the 2016 general election, but Republicans had much larger margins in the Legislature after the election. Republicans control about two-thirds of the seats in both the state House and the state Senate, and 10 of 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives - about 71 percent.
Similar imbalances exist across the nation favoring one or the other party. It’s a situation some observers say is the reason that both the U.S. Congress and the electorate have become more partisan since the 1870s.
Under Georgia rules, districts are supposed to consider county and precinct boundaries, compactness, and preserving communities of interest; maps should also avoid when possible pairing incumbents into a new district.
One panelist at last week’s forum, sponsored by the law school and its Georgia Law Review journal, said today’s gerrymandering threatens fundamental values of democracy, such as one person, one vote.
“The right to vote is under grave assault, as it has been under each iteration of our nation,” said Francys Johnson, a former president of the Georgia NAACP and a candidate for Georgia’s 12th District U.S. House of Representatives.
Johnson believes gerrymandering is part of a broader effort to disenfranchise America’s communities of color, including the right to vote.
Gerrymandering has led to an over-representation of whites in the state Legislature.
“We have the convergence of a dark storm brewing for our democracy, especially as it applies to communities of color,” he said.
It’s not a party issue, he said. Republicans are in control now, “but you learned your craft from Democrats,” he added.
And focusing on gerrymandering alone understates the wider problem facing America, he said.
Another panelist, lawyer Frank Strickland, disagreed with Johnson during their panel, which looked at the implications of gerrymandering specifically in Georgia.
Strickland said he does not believe gerrymandering is a threat to democracy’s fundamental values.
Strickland, who represented citizens in a successful legal challenge to Democratic gerrymandering in Georgia after the 2000 census, was skeptical that drawing district lines could be ever be separated from politics, even with something like the independent commissions some reformers favor.
Redistricting is “the most political” action legislators undertake, he said.
“You cannot remove politics from redistricting,” he said, “try as you may.”