Democrats Have a Plan B on Partisan Gerrymandering, and It’s Better Than You Think
Democrats have been despondent in the wake of yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on partisan gerrymandering. Rightly so: partisan gerrymandering is a huge gut punch to Americans’ fundamental rights, and instead of cleaning it up, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates. “Expect the abuse to be supercharged,” predicted Justin Levitt, an associate dean at Loyola Law School and a Justice Department official during the Obama administration. But, without being Pollyanna-ish, I want to point out that there is a genuine silver lining in this for Democrats: they are now super focused on voting rights and election reform issues, and those are proven political winners. Below, I’m posting a shortened version of the argument that my colleague, political science professor William Ewell, made about this issue back in February. Would it have been easier and much better for democracy for the SCOTUS ruling to go the other way? No question. But Democrats should embrace the upsides of their backup plan: they have been handed a powerful, motivating issue, one with bipartisan appeal and a demonstrated track record of electoral success. And ultimately, Justice Roberts may have been right that a political, legislative solution is more effective than a judicial one. So, Plan A would have been better, but Plan B can work too…it’s just harder.
Underneath the jaw-dropping size of the 2018 Blue Wave, there was a hidden and under-reported story of the midterm elections: the overwhelming popularity of progressive-leaning political reform initiatives across the country.
Overall, there were 16 total progressive political reform initiatives on the ballot in November. The measures instituted independent redistricting commissions, campaign finance system amendments, voting reform, voting rights, lobbying reforms, and state ethics commissions.
What almost no one talked about was that 87 percent of those reforms passed. The take-home message for pundits, party leaders, and activists is that this clear reaction to the current political climate is a sign that progressive political reform is not only necessary, but a winning issue politically.
How do we know that these kinds of reforms are such a winner? First of all, the scoreboard: fourteen of sixteen reform measures passed. Second, the average win margin of 60 percent is a sign of overwhelming bipartisan support. For example, look at the four states (Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah) that passed redistricting reform ballot measures. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis won the race for Governor with 52.3 percent of the vote while the redistricting amendment won with 71 percent. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill lost her bid for re-election to the US Senate at 45 percent, while the redistricting initiative passed with 62 percent. In Utah, Democratic Senate Candidate Jenny Wilson received only 31 percent of the vote, but the redistricting initiative still eked out a victory.
Third, these initiatives won everywhere, even in purple or fully red states. In fact, ten of the measures were passed in states Donald Trump won in 2016, including Missouri (Trump won by more than 17 percentage points), Utah (Trump by more than 18 percent), and North Dakota (Trump by more than 35 percent).
Fourth, there were a range of topics under the broader umbrella of making voting fairer and more accessible – and they were all popular. For example, in Florida, a state where gubernatorial and Senate elections are so closely contested, an initiative to give back voting rights to former inmates won, and with a strong 62 percent.
Reformers still have their work cut out for them. For one thing, while the vast majority of state political reforms sought expansion of voting rights, a handful of states sought to roll back rights. For example, North Carolina (56-44) and Arkansas (79-21) passed voter ID laws that disproportionately increase barriers to voting for older, lower income, and minority voters.
More broadly, the challenge is that as much as the 2018 midterm election state ballot initiatives illustrated widespread support for reforms, the total impact of these reforms is still limited, and the status quo is riddled with barriers to fair voting. The proliferation of voter ID laws in recent years (as of 2018, 17 states require a photo ID to vote while another 17 require a non-photo ID) represents a challenge to making voting more fair and accessible. 37 states still empower their state legislature to draw congressional district lines and 35 to draw state legislative district lines. The vast majority of those states still suffer from gerrymandered districts.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming lesson of the 2018 election is that political reform that makes elections more fair, free, and accessible to voters is overwhelmingly popular and broadly achievable. Candidates should take notice, and reformers should take heart.