Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Election reform has risen toward the top of Democrats’ priority list since regaining the White House and Senate majorities in January. While their proposed reforms don’t seem like they’ll become law due to a political stalemate, these issues remain an important part of the party’s political goals.
An important but overlooked provision in the For the People Act, the voting rights bill, is the establishment of independent redistricting commissions in states to combat partisan gerrymandering. If the bill miraculously passes, it couldn’t come at a better time — state legislatures are set to redraw district lines based on information from the 2020 census.
This process will be especially interesting in heavily blue states such as Maryland, which has long been recognized as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. Unlike a few other states, which have created independent commissions, Maryland’s state legislature still has control over the redistricting process. It has already been speculated the Democratic supermajority in Maryland’s state legislature will attempt to remove the state’s lone Republican representative, Andy Harris, through the redistricting process.
Redrawing district lines in blue states such as Maryland could put the Democratic Party at a crossroads when it comes to election reform and voting rights. National Democrats have been fairly consistent — in messaging if not in action — in standing for election reform and the expansion of voting rights, especially in the face of Republican-led legislation in many states. But their state-level counterparts could undermine this message by continuing to engage in gerrymandering. While there will always be some parts of the country that are heavily tilted toward one party, gerrymandering manipulates the political process so voters are purposefully put into non-competitive districts where the predominant party can’t lose. Conversely, some districts are purposefully made more competitive, making votes in those districts more important than those in safe red or blue ones.
And Democrats have been just as guilty of gerrymandering as Republicans — and they have yet to fully reconcile this with their self-proclaimed emphasis on election reform. They need to be honest and reckon with their own efforts against fair elections if the rest of their messaging is to be believed, something that will be impossible if Democratic state legislatures continue to gerrymander districts across the nation.
The fact that anti-gerrymandering provisions were included at all in the legislation could indicate that at least some Democrats were willing to jeopardize their own power to commit to election reform — but commitment is easy when you know something has little to no chance of passing. The party apparatus could still benefit from gerrymandering at the state level while the bill is in limbo. I do not doubt Democrats want the For the People Act passed, but it’s also clear how they can benefit from its rejection.
Democrats need to make anti-gerrymandering rhetoric part of their public messaging. This would bring more attention to the issue and hopefully shame state legislatures into doing the right thing: end gerrymandering. More publicity around the issue would mean a bigger spotlight on gerrymandering efforts from both Democrats and Republicans, which is especially important this year as redistricting gets underway.
Politicians should not have control over any redistricting processes that affect their own power, I think every reasonable person acknowledges this, at least in theory. When you boil it down, the problem really is that simple, and if passed, the For the People Act would provide a viable solution through establishing independent commissions. But the unlikeliness of this bill passing means state legislatures need to take matters into their own hands and prevent gerrymandering from happening in the next round of redistricting, whether by genuine integrity or public shaming.
Adam Cullen is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.