Skip to main content

Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

The shape of fraud

Gerrymandering is a moral blot on American politics

The shape of fraud

Illinois Congressional District 04 Boundary Map (Rachel Beatty)

Among all the abuses of the democratic process in America, none is more arrogant than the gerrymander. I argued that point here 25 years ago, but the danger is more acute now.

In case you missed your eighth grade civics lesson on gerrymandering, the term refers to the process of reshaping a political district so it includes just the right number of people who can be predicted to vote a certain way. Then—voila!—those people responsible for the artful shaping of that district can bring about almost any political end they want and claim it was what the people in that district voted for.

The abuse has been going on for generations, and Republicans and Democrats are equal opportunity offenders. So this is a nonpartisan complaint.

The issue of gerrymandering is important over the next couple of years for several reasons. One is that an official census of the United States is scheduled over that time (the process has already begun), and the very design of a successful gerrymander—for better or for worse—depends on a faithful and accurate count of who lives where.

A second reason the issue is currently important is that 2020 is another election year. Public attention will almost certainly be focused on the presidential and congressional elections—but just as critical will be the tilt of the legislatures of all 50 states. Those legislatures typically have significant influence in the design of congressional districts—a design that continues for the next decade. Republicans have dominated that process over the last couple of decades. But if Democrats do as well in 2020 as they did in 2018, they will hold some strategic advantages for years to come.

And a third reason for paying attention is that the U.S. Supreme Court—in spite of its recent hands-off posture—will almost certainly send down some sort of ruling on the matter in the next year or two.

Those of us who live in North Carolina have sometimes witnessed gerrymandering at its worst. In the early 1990s, we were handed one of the most egregious examples of gerrymandering in American history. The designers had the obvious goal of carving out two districts meant to assure the election of two African American congressmen—and, incidentally, two white congressmen in districts left safe for them.

Wily politicians worked overtime to design two of the most tortured-looking geographical entities you ever laid eyes on. One district snaked along I-85 for 150 miles, picking up every urban area and African American voter it could find along the way. The other district twisted and stretched and yawned from the Virginia border on the north to the South Carolina line on the south.

Such blatant reshaping of the political landscape couldn’t last long—and was indeed sent packing by the courts. But those courts have been readier to declare what won’t pass muster than they are to tell states what will be permitted. In the process, I was moved from a district that was always up for grabs to one that is “reliably Republican”—suggesting that my part in the process is virtually meaningless.

Repeated efforts to “redistrict” big chunks of the populace in North Carolina and other states have received thumbs-down signals from a variety of courts. And that’s partly because those courts, to be consistent, want to say that no one—not even they—is smart enough to shape perfectly fair districts.

Justice is best served when state legislatures, and ultimately the court system as well, remove themselves from the redistricting process.

Justice is best served when state legislatures, and ultimately the court system as well, remove themselves from the redistricting process. The temptation to play games is just too strong.

What seems to work best, with fewest complaints, is an approach sometimes referred to as the “Iowa model.” In effect for most of the last three decades, the Iowa model rests on an independent commission of nonpolitical participants, appointed every 10 years. That body draws up a redistricting plan that goes next to the state legislature for an up-or-down vote; no tinkering allowed!

Such arms-length delegation has been proposed in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but so far without success. Citizens committed to Biblical equity in the voting booth should explore what steps they can take in their own states to nudge greedy politicians away from such voter fraud.