The downtown of Denton, Texas, a city of about 150,000 people and two large universities just north of Dallas, exudes the energy of a fast-growing place with a sizable student population: There’s a vibrant independent music scene, museums and public art exhibits, beer gardens, a surfeit of upscale dining options, a weekly queer variety show. The city is also racially and ethnically diverse: More than 45 percent of residents identify as Latino, Black, Asian or multiracial. There aren’t too many places in Texas where you can encounter Muslim students praying on a busy downtown sidewalk, but Denton is one of them.
Drive about seven hours northwest of Denton’s city center and you hit Texline, a flat, treeless square of a town tucked in the corner of the state on the New Mexico border. Cow pastures and wind turbines seem to stretch to the horizon. Texline’s downtown has a couple diners, a gas station, a hardware store and not much else; its largely white population is roughly 460 people and shrinking.
It would be hard to pick two places more different from one another than Denton and Texline — and yet thanks to the latest round of gerrymandering by Texas’ Republican-dominated Legislature, both are now part of the same congressional district: the 13th, represented by one man, Ronny Jackson. Mr. Jackson, the former White House physician, ran for his seat in 2020 as a hard-right Republican. It turned out to be a good fit for Texas-13, where he won with almost 80 percent of the vote.
This was before the 2020 census was completed and Congress reapportioned, which gave the Texas delegation two more seats for its growing population, for a total of 38. State Republicans, who control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, were free to redraw their district lines pretty much however they pleased. They used that power primarily to tighten their grip on existing Republican seats rather than create new ones, as they had in the 2010 cycle. In the process, they managed to squelch the political voice of many nonwhite Texans, who accounted for 95 percent of the state’s growth over the last decade yet got not a single new district that would give them the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.
Denton offers a good example of how this played out. Under the old maps, downtown Denton, where the universities lie, was part of the 26th District — a Republican-majority district, but considerably more competitive than the 13th. If Texas politics continue to move left as they have in recent years, the 26th District could have become a tossup. The liberal residents of Denton could have had the chance to elect to Congress a representative of their choosing.
Now that the downtown has been absorbed into the 13th District and yoked to the conservative Texas panhandle, however, they might as well be invisible. Even with the addition of all those younger and more liberal voters, the 13th remains a right-wing fortress, with a 45-point Republican lean, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight. (The redrawn 26th District, meanwhile, will likely become a few points more Republican in the absence of Denton’s downtown.)
This is the harm of partisan gerrymanders: Partisan politicians draw lines in order to distribute their voters more efficiently, ensuring they can win the most seats with the fewest votes. They shore up their strongholds and help eliminate any meaningful electoral competition. It’s the opposite of how representative democracy is supposed to work.
How is it supposed to work? Politicians are elected freely by voters, and they serve at the pleasure of those voters, who can throw them out if they believe they aren’t doing a good job. Partisan gerrymanders upend that process. Politicians redraw lines to win their seats regardless of whether most voters want them to; in closely fought states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, Republicans drew themselves into control of the legislatures even when Democrats won a majority of votes statewide.
When these gerrymanders become the norm, as they have in the absence of meaningful checks, they silence the voices of millions of Americans, leading people to believe they have little or no power to choose their representatives. This helps increase the influence of the political extremes. It makes bipartisan compromise all but impossible and creates a vicious circle in which the most moderate candidates are the least likely to run or be elected.
Texas Republicans have been especially ruthless at playing this game, but they’re far from alone. Their counterparts in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kansas have taken similar approaches to stack the deck against Democrats. Democrats have likewise gone on offense in states where they control mapmaking, such as in Illinois and Oregon, where lawmakers drew maps for 2022 that effectively erased swathes of Republicans.
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
The Supreme Court had an opportunity in 2019 to outlaw the worst of this behavior, but it refused to, claiming it had neither the authority nor any clear standards to stop gerrymanders that “reasonably seem unjust.” This was nonsense; lower federal courts and state courts have had no problem coming up with workable standards for years. Court intervention is essential, because voters essentially have no other way of unrigging the system. But the Supreme Court’s conservative majority stuck its head in the sand, giving free rein to the worst impulses of a hyperpolarized society.
As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent: “Of all times to abandon the court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”
The Supreme Court isn’t the only institution to shirk its responsibility to make maps fairer. Congress has the constitutional authority to set standards for federal elections, but Republicans have repeatedly blocked efforts by Democrats to require independent redistricting commissions. It doesn’t help matters that most Americans still don’t understand what redistricting is or how it works.
Left to their own devices, states are doing what they can. More than a dozen have created some type of redistricting commission, but the details matter greatly. Some commissions, like California’s and Michigan’s, are genuinely independent — composed of voters rather than lawmakers, and as a result these states have fairer maps.
Commissions in some other states are more vulnerable to partisan influence because they have no binding authority. In New York, the commission plays only an advisory role, so it was no surprise when Democrats in power quickly took over the process and redrew district lines to ensure that 22 of the state’s 26 seats would be won by their party. The state’s top court struck the Democratic maps down for violating a 2014 amendment to the State Constitution barring partisan gerrymanders — a good decision in a vacuum, perhaps, but the result is more chaos and infighting, because the final maps are forcing several top Democratic lawmakers to face off against one another. Meanwhile in Ohio, where the State Constitution has a similar provision barring partisan gerrymanders, the State Supreme Court repeatedly invalidated Republican-drawn gerrymanders for being unfairly biased, but Republicans have managed to ignore those rulings, and so will end up with the maps they want, at least for this cycle.
The patchwork of litigation and different outcomes around the country only strengthens the case for a national standard, which is nowhere in sight. It’s a maddening situation with no apparent solution — until you widen the lens and look at the larger structure of American government. When you do, it becomes clear that extreme partisan gerrymandering is more a symptom than a cause of democratic breakdown. The bigger problem is that the way we designed our system of political representation incentivizes the worst and most extreme elements of our politics.
On the federal level, at least, there are clear solutions that Congress could adopt tomorrow if it had the will to do so.
First, expand the House of Representatives. As The Times’s editorial board explained in 2018, the House’s membership, 435, is far too small for America in the 21st century. It reached its current size in 1911, when the country had fewer than one-third as many people as it does today, and the national budget was a tiny fraction of its current size. In 1911, each representative had an average of 211,000 constituents — already far more than the founders had envisioned. Today that number is more than 750,000. It is virtually impossible for one person, Ronny Jackson or anyone else, to accurately represent the range of political interests in a district of that size.
Why are we still stuck with a House of Representatives from the turn of the last century? The founders certainly didn’t want it that way; the original First Amendment to the Constitution, which Congress proposed in 1789, would have permanently tied the size of the House to the nation’s population; the amendment fell one state short of ratification.
Still, as the country grew Congress kept adding seats after every decennial census, almost without fail. After 1911, that process was obstructed by rural and Southern lawmakers intent on stopping the shift in political power to the Northern cities, where populations were exploding. In 1929, Congress passed a law that locked the House size at 435 seats and created an algorithm for reapportioning them in the future.
A bigger House is necessary to more accurately reflect American politics and to bring the United States back in line with other advanced democracies. But on its own it wouldn’t solve our failure of representation. The larger culprit is our winner-take-all elections: From the presidency down, American electoral politics gives 100 percent of the spoils to one side and zero to the other — a bad formula for compromise at any time, and especially dangerous when the country is as polarized as it is today. But at least some of that polarization can be attributed to the manner in which we choose our representatives.
In Congress, districts are represented by a single person, which is harmful in two ways: First, it’s hard to see how one person can adequately represent three-quarters of a million people. Second, even though representatives are supposed to look out for all their constituents, the reality of our politics means most people who didn’t vote for the winner will feel unrepresented entirely.
The solution: proportional multimember districts. When districts are larger and contain three or even five members, they can more accurately capture the true shape of the electorate and let everyone’s voice be heard. And if the candidates are chosen through ranked-choice voting, then Republicans, Democrats and even third parties can win representation in Congress in rough proportion to their vote share. It’s no longer a zero-sum game that leaves out millions of Americans.
The founders were comfortable with multimember districts, just as they were with a House of Representatives that kept expanding. In fact, such districts were common in the early years of the Republic, but Congress outlawed them at the federal level, most recently in 1967, partly out of a concern that Southern lawmakers were using them to entrench white political power — a problem that ranked-choice voting would solve.
These reforms may sound technical, but they are central to saving representative democracy in America.
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