The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I was gerrymandered out of my Missouri district. Voters deserve real competition.

Missouri state Rep. Doug Richey (R) points out elements of a proposed congressional redistricting map to fellow lawmakers during House debate on May 9 in Jefferson City, Mo. (David A. Lieb/AP)
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Ben Samuels, a Democrat, was running to represent Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Until Friday, I was a U.S. House candidate, seeking to represent Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District. Running as a middle-of-the-road Democrat, inspired by the notion of public service, I have spent most of the past year meeting with voters, talking to advocacy groups and raising money. My experience having worked for a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor is useful for this once-purple district, and I was the leading Democratic candidate in the race.

I withdrew not because an aggressive gerrymander shifted the 2nd District from a toss-up to a safely Republican seat — I knew the headwinds going in — but because I was literally drawn out of my district.

In every iteration of Missouri’s map — and there were many divergent options on the table — my house in the St. Louis suburbs was evicted from the 2nd District, sometimes by half a block, sometimes by three.

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The absurdities of Missouri’s redistricting process were myriad: a state senator drawing a new congressional district for his incumbent cousin; a months-long filibuster by Missouri’s seven-member Conservative Caucus, three of whom are running for Congress and held up the redistricting process to draw themselves better maps; a Democrat who voted in favor of the new map — one of very few to do so — that just so happens to make his primary challenge against Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) much stronger.

Sadly, this is nothing new: During redistricting 10 years ago, Missouri’s maps were carved around the house of a political megadonor who wanted to be represented by a Republican rather than a Democrat.

These days, no one even bothers to give lip service to what’s best for the more than 750,000 constituents in these districts. This problem is not limited to Missouri. In red states such as Texas and Florida, and blue states such as Illinois and New York, legislators are drawing hyperpartisan districts — focusing not on voters but on what’s best for themselves or an ally, or what’s worst for a political foe. Incumbents are protected from tough reelections and from facing one another in primaries. Decisions are made with little time for legal challenges.

Consider: Illinois, a blue state, will have 17 congressional seats at the start of 2023. Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, all reliably red these days, will together have 17 congressional seats at the start of 2023. In these 34 House races, exactly one is a toss-up in 2022 — not exactly encouraging if you think competition is healthy.

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These political power grabs must be met with practical solutions both to prevent candidates from being maneuvered out of races and, critically, to ensure that we all have a shot at voting in elections that matter, rather than in districts designed to produce predetermined outcomes. Absent healthy political competition, we end up with more lopsided and extreme government and representatives.

Of course, neither party wants to be the first mover and possibly diminish its own power, especially not when primaries decide the overwhelming majority of elections in Congress. Absent federal action, the only path forward is bilateral disarmament and bipartisan agreement. I have worked enough with governors in both parties to recognize that they tend to be more practical than other elected officials because they actually have to govern. If states were to work together to prevent electoral abuses, and pass similar legislation predicated upon other states doing the same, no one would get a partisan leg up and voters everywhere would benefit.

The tipping point might be reached not through altruism but the pain that follows overreach — specifically, from “dummymanders,” in which a party spreads its votes too thin and gets hit hard in a wave election. If governors and legislatures see gerrymanders backfire in the next decade, they might be willing to negotiate — if not to avoid the outcome then at least to avoid the blame. Some Democrats already worry that, if 2022 ends up being a wave election for Republicans, Illinois will get hit especially hard.

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Meanwhile, the public must be educated about these power grabs and what happens behind the scenes to pressure candidates to drop out. Reps. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Nashville, and John Katko, a Republican from Upstate New York, are both centrists forced into retirement because they were gerrymandered out of their seats despite consistently running well ahead of the top of the ticket. Voters want more pragmatists, but state legislatures are making it harder to elect them. People on both sides of the aisle need to bring attention to this antidemocracy trend.

Running for office is, at its core, an act of optimism: the belief that you not only can win but also make a difference. It can be hard to maintain that optimism, especially when you are the small-scale target of legislative pettiness. But our diverse nation needs diverse leaders committed to their communities. We also need young people to vote and to be willing to run for office.

For now, my run comes to an end. But other work needs to begin — work to ensure that millions of Missourians, and Americans everywhere, don’t have their congressional representation determined by naked partisanship and state legislators who want to advance their own careers or help their friends at the expense of everyone else.