Time to end gerrymandering of legislative districts

Originally published at the Athens Banner-Herand.

The last year has been pretty good to Alexander Hamilton. The Revolutionary War hero and Treasury secretary is the subject of a smash-hit musical that has reinvigorated interest in his life and done wonders for his legacy.

A different hero of the founding generation, Elbridge Gerry — who would be 272 years old on July 17 — has not been so lucky. Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence, was a key supporter of the Bill of Rights, vice president of the United States, and governor of Massachusetts.

But all of these accomplishments have been eclipsed by one decision Gerry made while he was governor: He approved Massachusetts state Senate districts in 1812 that sliced and diced the state in a deviously artistic way to secure Democratic-Republican control of the chamber while thwarting his Federalist opponents. A Boston Gazette cartoon compared one of the districts to a salamander and called the new creature a “gerrymander.” The label stuck, and today, gerrymandering remains the preferred term to describe the drawing of legislative districts for political advantage.

Georgians are all too familiar with this undemocratic practice. This year, the General Assembly districts our legislature drew for themselves will result in the least competitive state legislative elections in the United States. Voters in 80 percent of districts — the highest percentage of any state — will see only one major-party candidate on the ballot because the other party decided it was not even worth it to run a candidate.

Gerrymandering has troubling consequences for Georgia’s democracy and our economy. Earlier this year, the legislature passed House Bill 757, the so-called “religious liberty” bill. The bill brought an onslaught of criticism from some of the nation’s largest and most influential companies, who threatened to abandon the state. If Gov. Nathan Deal had decided against the veto he ultimately issued, this bill could have cost us billions of dollars in business and tourism revenue, in addition to countless numbers of jobs.

Regardless of the economic catastrophe that state-sanctioned bigotry could have caused, voters have little power to hold the bill’s supporters accountable, thanks to the rigging of districts.

Georgia can do better. Other states have devised solutions that take power away from the politicians and give it back to the people. Across the nation, Americans standing up for fair representation now have the wind at their backs.

In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the right of citizens to create independent redistricting commissions by ballot initiative. In its opinion, the court affirmed that “partisan gerrymanders are incompatible with democratic principles.” This decision protected independent citizen redistricting commissions that voters created in Arizona and California in addition to reforms in other states.

In Florida, voters passed a ban on drawing districts for political advantage. When the legislature ignored this prohibition, two lawsuits brought by Fair Districts Now coalition partners Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of Florida resulted in new congressional and state Senate districts that will be in effect this year.

In Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia, courts have recently ordered the redrawing of maps after ruling that packing minority voters into a small number of districts for partisan advantage violates the Constitution.

Citizens are also standing up for their right to fair representation in ongoing cases challenging the constitutionality of a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland and a Republican gerrymander in Wisconsin.

Elbridge Gerry’s life of service has been boiled down to one word — one mistake — that should have gone the way of witchcraft and powdered wigs a long time ago. It is unlikely that “Gerry: The Musical” will ever find its way to Broadway, but restoring Gerry’s good name by ending gerrymandering before his next birthday seems like a pretty good consolation prize.

Brinkley Serkedakis is executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization that works to strengthen public participation in democracy and ensure that public officials and public institutions are accountable and responsive to citizens. Send email to bserkedakis@commoncause.org.