Gerrymandering and partisanship are hot topics at the George Washington Leadership Lecture
By Cheryl Arvidson
A California congressman and two political experts say extreme partisanship has created a loss of trust in government that must be addressed by ending gerrymandering, which allows lawmakers to draw their own district lines for state legislatures and Congress.
Their remarks came on October 18 at the sixth annual George Washington Leadership Lecture, sponsored by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Fred W. Smith National Library at Mount Vernon. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-CA, a leading advocate of creating independent commissions to take redistricting out of the hands of state legislators, was interviewed by David Sloane, a professor at the USC Price School. David Daley, a journalist, author of “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy” and senior fellow at FairVote, and John Avlon, senior political analyst for CNN, took part in a panel discussion moderated by Ann Compton, former ABC White House correspondent.
More Partisanship, Less Trust
“I truly believe there is more partisanship and less trust in government. I think we have to reestablish trust in government, and this is one way to do it,” said Lowenthal, who is the sponsor of federal legislation to create independent redistricting commissions in all states to handle reapportionment, the next round of which will occur after the 2020 census.
However, he said he doubts any movement will occur in the foreseeable future.
“It’s very hard to get people to give up power themselves.” Lowenthal said. “Am I optimistic that the nation is going to move forward on this issue? No.”
Tech Advances in Gerrymandering
Daley noted that gerrymandering “is a problem as old as the Republic,” but the difference now is the tools used by the mapmakers shaping the districts to their own and their party’s advantage “are much more sophisticated.” With Geographic Information Systems, the individuals drawing the lines have a wealth of personal and demographic information on the people in the proposed districts, plus they also have “all the p
rivate information you can buy that also can be uploaded.”
The result dilutes the power of the people. For example, Avlon said in 2012 in Pennsylvania, the Democrats won 51 percent of the popular vote, but because of the extreme gerrymandering, Republicans kept a 2-to-1 advantage in congressional districts. The result was so egregious that the districting was found unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court and thrown out.
Polarization and the Supreme Court
The loss of progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats also has contributed to the extreme polarization and dysfunction in Washington, and he expects the 2018 midterm elections to continue that trend.
“This election is going to be very partisan because (President) Trump has further polarized the electorate,” Avlon said.
“We have created polarization and toxicity in our politics,” Daley said.
In addition to the difficulty of getting lawmakers to give up their power over reapportionment, another problem is that the Supreme Court is unlikely to continue its stand against gerrymandering, due to the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy was the swing vote in a 5-4 court decision in 2015 upholding the legality of an independent reapportionment commission in Arizona. His successor, Brett Kavanaugh, is exp
ected to side with the opponents of that ruling.
“Both parties in the future are going to get better and better in controlling state legislatures to make sure they can keep control for the next 10 years,” Lowenthal said. “I don’t think the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch are going to come up with a solution, and right now I certainly am worried that the courts are not going to help us in solving this issue.”
Why Gerrymandering Matters
Then there is the fact that gerrymandering is not a “sexy” issue, so it is hard to generate much public interest.
“I think we need to make it a sexy issue because it is a massively important issue. This is a scandal,” said Avlon. “One of our jobs as journalists is making important issues interesting.”
“These are the building blocks of our democracy,” agreed Daley, adding that when the building blocks are twisted, the foundation of democracy is destabilized too.
Daley also noted that the United States is unique in the way it allows representative districts to be drawn.
“We are essentially the only modern democracy that allows lawmakers to draw their own lines,” he said. “Just about everybody else has a better method.”