The United States is becoming a land filled with “democracy deserts,” where gerrymandering and voting restrictions are making voters powerless to make change, like in Wisconsin. And the new round of redistricting could make things even worse.
Since 2012, the Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard University has studied the quality of elections worldwide. It has also issued bi-annual reports that grade U.S. states, on a scale of 1 through 100. In its most recent study of the 2020 elections, the integrity of Wisconsin’s electoral boundaries earned a 23, worst in the nation. That ranking was on par with Jordan, Bahrain, and the Congo.
Why is Wisconsin so bad? Consider that, among other things, its a swing-state that helped decide the 2016 election. Control the outcome in Wisconsin, and you could control the nation. But Wisconsin isn’t the only democracy desert. Alabama (31), North Carolina (32), Michigan (37), Ohio (33), Texas (35), Florida (37) and Georgia (39) scored only nominally higher. Nations that join them in the 30s include Hungary, Turkey and Syria.
Representative democracy has been broken for the past decade in places like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida. When Republican lawmakers redistricted these states after the 2010 census, with the benefit of precise, granular voting data and the most sophisticated mapping software ever, they gerrymandered themselves into advantages that have held firm for the last decade – even when Democratic candidates win hundreds of thousands more statewide votes.
In Wisconsin, for example, voters handed Democrats every statewide race in 2018 and 203,000 more votes for the state Assembly – but the tilted Republican map handed Republicans 63 of the 99 seats nevertheless. Democratic candidates have won more or nearly the same number of votes for Michigan’s state house for the last decade – but never once captured a majority of seats.
Now redistricting is upon us again. This week, the US Census Bureau will release the first round of population data to the states, and the decennial gerrymandering Olympics will begin in state capitols nationwide. And while there has been much coverage of the national stakes – Republicans could win more than the five seats they need to control of Congress next fall through redrawing Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida alone, and they’ve made clear that’s their plan – much less alarm has been raised about the long-term consequences of entrenched Republican minority rule in the states.
It is time for them to ring. The situation is dangerous. Our democratic crisis is not just the stuff of academic studies. Who controls our states is increasingly a matter of life and death. Recent history is riddled with examples. For instance, the Flint water crisis began after a gerrymandered Michigan legislature reinstated an emergency manager provision even after voters repealed it in a statewide referendum.
When lawmakers in Texas ban mask mandates, or Florida politicians take away the power of local officials to require masks in schools, that was the consequence of gerrymandering. And its impact can be measured in actual lives. When state lawmakers enact draconian restrictions on reproductive rights in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri that opinion polls show are out of step with their own residents, that’s the power of gerrymandering. When Republican legislators strip emergency powers from Democratic governors, that was yet another insidious effect. Our health, safety and well-being – our very lives – are in the hands of our state legislators. It is imperative that our votes decide who they are.
We know that when gerrymandering “packs” and “cracks” voters into districts for partisan advantage, it results in fewer districts that are competitive. And when districts are uncompetitive, fewer candidates have incentive to run – and those who do have little incentive to pay attention to any voters’ preferences outside of those who participate in low-turnout, base-driven primaries. This district uncompetitiveness, and the lack of incentives for legislators to listen and govern, is why our state and federal legislatures are so polarized.
And it can still get worse. Republicans hold complete control over redistricting in Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. Democratic governors will have veto power over at least some tilted maps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and a new commission will draw lines in Michigan. That should force some compromise in those states.
But it also means that if Democrats lose the governor’s office in any of those states in 2022, Republicans might try to force a mid-decade redraw of maps. These entrenched lawmakers continue to show us how extreme they are, and demonstrate their willingness to demolish any traditional guardrail. We have already seen how legislators in those states have pushed for new voting restrictions, for sham “audits” of the 2020 results, and have even called for changes in how Electoral College votes are awarded and certified.
To be clear: Donald Trump’s Big Lie was enabled by gerrymandering. Much of the success of the Big Lie is in its veneer of legitimacy, which has been perpetuated by Republican state legislators in places like Michigan, Georgia and Texas – whose very electoral successes were made possible by gerrymandering. And while the system held, barely, in 2020, there is no guarantee that the same thing happens next time, after another round of extreme redistricting and several more years of surgical laws designed to suppress the vote in closely contested states.
These are the stakes right now as redistricting begins anew. As we await the final Census data this week, we must not allow redistricting to unfold quickly behind closed doors. We must keep this process transparent and mapmakers accountable. Find your state’s redistricting hearing schedule online, join the meetings – many will be held virtually – and consider submitting testimony about why fair maps matter. Tweet at journalists and your legislators. Mention it in every conversation you have with friends and family. Learn about and support organizations fighting for fair maps with people power on the ground.
The process is going to move fast, and the next several weeks are critical. The stakes are much higher than just Congress. This is a fight for the future of our states, too. If you think that legislators will always be accountable to the people, or that autocracy can’t happen here, you aren’t paying attention. It already is.
Dаvіd Dаlеy and Gаby Gоldstеіn
Portions originally published on The Guardian as America is full of ‘democracy deserts’. Wisconsin rivals Congo on some metrics
- Dаvіd Dаlеy is the author of the national best-seller Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count and Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy
- Gаby Gоldstеіn is co-founder at Sister District, which works to build progressive power in state legislatures.