Most recently, five conservative justices determined last week that federal courts have no role reining in partisan gerrymandering. In doing so, the court has torn at the fabric of our democracy and put the interests of politicians ahead of the voters. Map manipulation allows politicians to pick their voters so a party with minority views and support can illegitimately govern with majority power. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her powerful and prescient dissent, the partisan gerrymanders in Maryland and North Carolina “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”
We know from learned experience that the impact of this decision is potentially significant. As a result of the Citizens United decision in 2010, our system is now awash with unregulated money that protects those interests with means. And because of the Shelby County ruling in 2013, the ability to proactively stop discriminatory voting practices from taking effect no longer exists. Within days of the Shelby County decision, conservative state legislatures unleashed a wave of unnecessary and discriminatory voter ID laws, voting roll purges and poll closures targeting minority and poor communities.
These decisions — in addition to the concerted efforts by Republicans to stack federal courts with ideological judges — have been pernicious and disappointing but not altogether shocking. History will not be kind in its assessment of these tactics, just as it has been unkind to the Lochner era of the Supreme Court during the early 20th century. At the time, activist justices used flawed reasoning to routinely overturn laws meant to protect workers and create a more equitable economic system. The focus of each era is different, but both are defined by a partisan majority intent on reaching ideologically driven outcomes.
Although the situation is dire, there are still tools — litigation, reform efforts, winning state and local elections, and citizen advocacy — that we must pursue to restore fairness to our democracy.
My organization, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, will continue to bring racial gerrymandering claims in the federal courts and partisan gerrymandering cases in the state courts. An affiliate of the NDRC is supporting a state-based partisan gerrymandering case in North Carolina that seeks to strike down the maps for both chambers of the General Assembly.
The NDRC is also supporting reform efforts on the ballot and in state legislatures to create independent, citizen-led redistricting commissions like those in use in Arizona and California. Last year, voters in red and blue states such as Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Utah passed reforms to the redistricting process that create citizen-led commissions or make the process less partisan.
For too long, the Democratic Party has failed to focus on the state and local elections that impact the lives of American citizens on a day-to-day basis and determine who has a seat at the redistricting table. Although Democrats flipped seven governors’ mansions and hundreds of seats in state legislatures in 2018, there is still a long way to go. Democrats must invest in — and win — state and local elections in 2019 and 2020 to make sure that Republicans do not retain total control in the remaining states and manipulate the process again during 2021 redistricting.
At this moment when our political system is being tested in so many ways, the American people cannot take our democracy for granted. That democracy was bought with the blood of the first Americans more than two centuries ago and maintained by the sacrifices of patriots on this and foreign soil since then. This is not a time for despair; this is a time for concerted and coordinated action, especially in the states.
I am optimistic, despite the presence of a misguided Supreme Court, that the will of the American people — and not the special interests — will triumph. During my lifetime, I have seen an engaged citizenry stop an unwise war and end a system of American apartheid. We need that same level of energy and commitment to restore our democracy so that it lives up to this nation’s founding ideals.