Of all the cancerous and anti-democratic components of modern-day politics — dark and unlimited money, voter suppression, and outsize corporate influence — I believe gerrymandering to be the No. 1 cause of the dysfunction in government, both federally and on the state level. When people rightfully ask why there is such a divide in Washington, D.C., and why our elected officials can’t meet in the middle or simply work together, it is because the battle lines have already been drawn.
Every 10 years, following the census, each state legislature meets to redraw the district boundaries for state elected officials and congressional leaders based on changes in population.
Gerrymandering is the practice in which politicians draw district boundaries to increase their odds of getting re-elected, essentially picking their voters instead of the other way around. It is one of the primary reasons that such hyper-partisanship exists in our country.
In red states like South Carolina, Republicans strategically draw district lines to minimize the chances of Democrats winning many general elections by packing Democratic voters together to form a small number of mega-Democratic districts, ensuring a large number of safe Republican seats.
Even though Democrats typically receive well over 40 percent of the vote in South Carolina statewide elections, they held only 15 percent of the congressional seats — 1 out of 7 — before last year.
But these abuses are not unique to South Carolina, nor is either party innocent. Indeed, elected officials in both parties use this power to help themselves and their political parties. Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, drawn by Democrats in the legislature, looks more like an abstract painting than it does a congressional district. It is considered perhaps the most gerrymandered district in America and is the handiwork of Democrats who suffer from the same partisan bias as Republicans in South Carolina.
This goes beyond simple inaccurate representation of voters, however. It is the type of elected officials created by this system — the extremes of both parties — who are the problem.
In practice, gerrymandering establishes a paradigm where it is virtually impossible to flip a high percentage of districts in the general election, meaning the person who wins the primary is basically guaranteed to win the seat. Candidates are thus incentivized to race to the far wing of their party to secure the nomination and allow the district boundaries to do the rest of the work for them in the general election.
Once in Congress or the Statehouse, there is no incentive to work with the other party because you do not need those votes to win re-election.
For elected officials, bipartisanship is no longer an asset, but a liability. When a candidate’s only electoral threat comes not from a general election but a primary, their political incentives shift toward the extreme fringes of their respective parties.
Any sign of compromise will inevitably be painted as an ideological weakness, potentially resulting in a primary challenge or even a nasty tweet from the president. Summed up, it is a road map for extremism. And that’s exactly what we see in Washington, D.C. and Columbia.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided against giving federal courts the power to regulate this practice. This means it is up to the states to act.
Luckily, many states such as Arizona and Ohio have seen the error of their ways and taken this power away from partisan politicians by passing bills that establish independent redistricting commissions to redraw lines in a fair and equitable manner.
And that’s exactly what South Carolina should do. There are four bills that create independent redistricting commissions sitting in the Legislature right now that could help end this undemocratic practice once and for all. It is time for both Democrats and Republicans to put down their battle armor and demand fair lines that truly represent the population, not just their political party.
U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., represents the 1st Congressional District.