On Feb. 15, hundreds of voters from all over Indiana descended on the Statehouse to support Rep. Jerry Torr’s bill to end gerrymandering. The huge turnout was especially impressive since the bill had been added to the schedule at the last possible moment, just a day before the hearing.
Testimony—from Republicans and Democrats alike—was overwhelmingly supportive. Nevertheless, Milo Smith, chairman of the House Election Committee, refused to allow a vote, summarily killing the measure.
It was a perfect reminder of why “safe seats” created by gerrymandering are so pernicious; they permit “elected” lawmakers to ignore the public will with impunity. Gerrymandering explains why policies supported by large majorities fail to be enacted by legislators who—theoretically—were chosen by those same voters.
Here’s how it works:
After each census, states must redraw state and federal district lines to reflect population changes. Whichever party controls the Legislature at the time controls the process and draws districts to maximize its own electoral prospects and minimize those of the opposing party. Political parties have always played this game, but computers have made gerrymandering far more precise.
Today, legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around.
The decline in competition fostered by gerrymandering entrenches partisan behavior and diminishes incentives for compromise and bipartisanship.
Political scientists have written extensively about “packing” (creating districts with supermajorities of the opposing party), “cracking” (distributing members of the opposing party among several districts to ensure they don’t have a majority in any of them), and “tacking” (expanding the boundaries of a district to include a desirable group from a neighboring district). They have also shown that gerrymandering significantly advantages incumbents.
By far the most pernicious effect of gerrymandering is the proliferation of safe seats.
Safe districts breed voter apathy and reduce political participation. What is the incentive to volunteer or vote when it obviously won’t matter? It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation, either; it is difficult for a district’s “sure loser” party to recruit credible candidates. As a result, in increasing numbers of districts, incumbents run unopposed or against candidates who are obvious tokens.
Today, most U.S. congressional districts are safe. In 2016, Nate Silver—founder of FiveThirtyEight, a website about politics and polling—estimated that, out of 435 House districts, only 35 were competitive.
In safe districts, the only way to truly oppose an incumbent is in the primary. When the primary becomes the de-facto general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological voters. Republican incumbents will be challenged by the right and Democratic incumbents from the left. Even where those challenges fail, they create a powerful incentive for incumbents to “toe the line”—to placate the most rigid elements of their respective parties. This system produces nominees who answer to the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.
The consequence of ever-more-precise state-level and congressional-district gerrymandering is a growing philosophical gap between the parties and— especially but not exclusively in the Republican Party—an empowered, rigidly ideological base intent on punishing any deviation from orthodoxy and/or hint of compromise.
Lawmakers beholden to this system don’t care what their party leadership wants, or what most voters in their districts want. They are motivated solely by the need to cling to power by satisfying the “base” and avoiding a primary challenge.
With the disappearance of democratic competition, “throwing the bums out” is no longer possible. As Smith so clearly demonstrated, the “bums” are firmly in control.•
Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.