With the SEC football and election seasons in full gear, we are reminded that competitive sports and representative democracy are two of the ingredients that make America a great nation.
Unfortunately, unlike the sports arena, the general elections have a serious lack of competition due to a process called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a practice used by the majority party in state legislatures to redraw election district maps after each population census to create a political advantage for itself. The result has been increasingly high margins of victory in state and congressional elections. According to The Encyclopedia of American Politics (Ballotpedia.org), a landslide 35.8 percent was the average margin of victory in the 2014 U.S. House races.
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute calls gerrymandering “the pattern of lawmakers choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their lawmakers.” In a 2014 case, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that allowing legislators to draw their own district lines is an inherent conflict of interest and wrote “Those who govern should be the last people to help decide who should govern.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote “Partisan gerrymanders are incompatible with democratic principles” in a 2015 decision that upheld a Arizona ballot initiative that entrusted an independent redistricting commission to draw the new election lines rather than the party-hired consultants or politicians.
Most political scientists agree that partisan gerrymandering is the main reason we don’t see the hotly contested matchups in the political arena that we see on the gridirons of the SEC. This lack of competition in the political arena is disproportionately higher in Georgia than other states.
In the Georgia legislative elections coming up this November, four out of five races (80.5 percent) will be uncontested. In football terms, this would be like either the Georgia Bulldogs or Florida Gators not showing up in four out of five seasons for the big game in Jacksonville.
The job security for Georgia legislators is getting greater and the monopolistic stranglehold that the major parties have on choosing their voters is getting worse over time. In the 2014 and 2010 elections, there were 74 percent and 66.1 percent uncontested seats in the general election, respectively. Nationally, 38 percent of the elections in 2010-14 were uncontested (Ballotpedia.org).
In addition to job security for legislators (perhaps greater than any profession), gerrymandering has led to a less-representative democracy in government because most lawmakers — fearing no consequences at the ballot box — feel free to support bad legislation to appease the extreme wings of each party, win the primary election and run unopposed in the general.
For example, in Georgia’s 2016 legislative session a “religious liberty”’ bill passed both chambers on party lines. The bill was to allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief” and preserve their right to fire employees who aren’t in accord with those beliefs.
As Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the religious liberty bill, he said that the legislation didn’t reflect the “warm, friendly and loving people” that Georgians are. He said, “Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
Most of the Georgia business community opposed the legislation and one reliable source in the Georgia hospitality industry said that, had Gov. Deal not vetoed the bill, Georgia would have lost close to $1 billion of event, convention and tourism revenues.
While Georgia leads Florida (50–42–2) in the all-time football series record, Florida has a leg up in redistricting reform. In 2010, Florida voters passed a ballot initiative that prohibits the legislature from drawing a plan or district “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent” or in a way that harms minority voting rights.
In Maryland, a federal district denied the state’s motion to dismiss a suit that alleged that Democratic gerrymander of Maryland’s 6th congressional district violated the First Amendment. The Maryland decision is the first case that has upheld the right of a voter to challenge a partisan gerrymander as a violation of the First Amendment and is certain to be appealed to the Supreme Court by the state.
Will Georgia be the last state to act and end partisan gerrymandering? Will the Supreme Court need to dictate how Georgians must move towards more competitive, fair and equally representative elections? Numerous redistricting reform bills have been introduced over the years under both Democratic and Republican controlled legislatures, but all have been dead on arrival because the party in power wants to continue to choose its voters.
It is time for voters in Georgia to make “a goal line stand” to end gerrymandering by making sure redistricting reform legislation is passed by the General Assembly before the 2020 census. Please contact your state legislators and our governor today (http://openstates.org/ga/legislators/) and demand an end to partisan gerrymandering, monopolistic and undemocratic elections in our state.
Jeff Ploussard is a member of the Georgia Redistricting Coalition.