October 3, 2017

Combatting Partisan Gerrymandering in the 115th Congress

Owen Taylor

In August, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote about the likely impacts of partisan gerrymandering heading into the 2018 midterms – “we’re unquestionably in a season of gerrymandering.”

A federal court is currently reviewing a major redistricting case in Texas, while the Supreme Court has put on hold a Maryland case where compelling evidence suggests that partisan disenfranchisement is at play. Last November, federal judges ruled the Wisconsin State Assembly’s newly-adopted map unconstitutional, based on its intent to “systematically dilute the voting strength of Democratic voters statewide.” Wisconsin appealed the ruling and the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today, October 3. (Gill v. Whitford)

The Wall Street Journal’s Brent Kendall and Jess Bravin explain that the Supreme Court is in a unique position to set and define a nationwide limit to partisanship in redistricting. Since justices have previously not come to a consensus on the definition of excessive or extreme partisan redistricting, the Supreme Court has never ruled a partisan gerrymander case unconstitutional. Gill v. Whitford has the potential to reverse that.

Last year, Prime’s John Tanner shared an insight about the role gerrymandering plays amongst the “angry electorate” widely examined in the 2016 election cycle. Tanner discusses the inequities of drawing House seats to favor specific constituencies and points out precise action by prior Congresses to scale back the pattern of partisan gerrymandering. In the 115th Congress, Tennessee’s Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) repeats the call for redistricting reform by reintroducing John Tanner’s namesake bill: H.R. 711 – The John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act.

Prior to joining Prime Policy Group as Vice Chairman in 2011, Tanner represented Tennessee’s 8th Congressional district for over two decades. During his tenure in Congress, Tanner co-founded a coalition of moderate House Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. The Blue Dogs, often marginalized by hardliners on the left and right, still advocate today for private enterprise and a fiscally responsible agenda. While acknowledging the detriments of an unbalanced budget and excessive spending, Tanner and the Blue Dogs also routinely deemed partisan redistricting as having the most corrosive effect on our governing system.

The intensifying polarization in the House of Representatives is due in part to partisan redistricting. In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) highlight this concept: “When gerrymandering is used to establish safe districts, the proliferation of those safe seats leads to a more polarized and dysfunctional political climate.”

In most states, the legislature has wide latitude to redraw their legislative and congressional maps—at virtually any time—to attain a chiefly partisan objective. Surgically-drawn districts favor a likeminded constituency, thus it becomes politically-perilous for an incumbent who refuses to toe the party line on every issue. The more a member fails the political purity tests, the greater the likelihood a primary opponent will emerge. When districts are redrawn to pack strictly Republican or Democratic voters, the incentive to compromise diminishes, ultimately eroding the political center.

The founders of our electoral system intentionally created a process to require a certain “give and take” among competing ideas to govern effectively. In contrast with the parliamentary world, our system of three separate entities doesn’t suggest or recommend compromise, but demands it.

In a recent conversation with Tanner, he explained that “without the ability to compromise, you lose the ability to govern. Gerrymandering, as it is now practiced, has the effect of superimposing a parliamentary model on a representative system.”

In 2012, Tanner, along with two former senior aides, Randall Ford and Carling Dinkler IV, published, Drawing Voters Back Into the Electoral Process: Why and How, in the Stanford Law & Policy Review, where they make the case for redistricting reform and breakdown what such a bill could accomplish. In the 109th, 110th and 111th Congresses, Rep. Tanner introduced that very legislation, with the purpose of, “preventing state legislatures from redistricting outside of the decennial census and require them to draw congressional districts via an independent commission bound by simple, yet important standards.” The precedent for such a mandate is granted in Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress to pass legislation regulating the time, place, and manner of elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. Jim Cooper’s bill in the current Congress embodies these very principles.

The disincentive for either party to move gerrymandering reform forward continues to stonewall progress. In the past, party leaders and rank-and-file House Members have brushed off questions about not supporting such a reform, such as H.R. 711, citing their concerns with states’ rights and the Voting Rights Act. Yet the purpose of gerrymandering remains to politically engineer district maps to cement party power and Republicans and Democrats alike benefit from this map contorting. Without fundamental change, the 2018 midterm elections will only yield further disproportionate representation and the perception by many that Washington is “rigged” will only intensify.


Owen Taylor

Owen Taylor is a Client Executive with Prime Policy Group and a member of the firm’s research team. He assists a number of lobbyists working in various practice areas by performing in-depth research and monitoring of legislative issues relevant to client interests.