AMERICAN democracy suffers from a Catch-22. When voters delegate power over government policies to their elected representatives, they also delegate control over the rules of the elections in which those representatives are chosen. Unsurprisingly, political parties have done their best to rig those elections in their own favour, by gerrymandering the borders of legislative districts. For voters unhappy with such shenanigans, the only recourse is to support a different political party. However, in most cases, the gerrymandering successfully prevents reformist candidates from winning elections, ensuring that the system remains in place.
Campaigners for fair redistricting long hoped for some help from the Supreme Court. Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court makes that less likely, so their attention has turned to direct democracy. They can already claim one modest victory this year. One of America’s most effective gerrymanders can be found in Ohio, where Republicans won 58% of votes for the House of Representatives in 2016 and 75% of the seats.
In 2012 Republicans spent heavily in a successful effort to defeat a ballot initiative that would have outsourced the drawing of districts to a non-partisan commission. The state’s Republicans feared that a renewed anti-gerrymandering referendum campaign might succeed in a political environment that looks much more favourable for Democrats. As a result, Ohio’s Republican party gave its assent to a modest reform, which requires numerous steps to secure bipartisan support for legislative maps, and shortens the lifespan of those passed by a one-party majority from ten years to four. Voters approved the initiative in May by a three-to-one margin.
The success of the referendum in Ohio has inspired campaigners elsewhere to push for more ambitious changes. Next month electorates in Colorado, Missouri, Utah and Michigan will all have the opportunity to wrest control of district-drawing away from their representatives. Opponents in both Missouri and Michigan filed lawsuits to keep the initiatives off the ballot, but lost in court. Of the quartet, Michigan is the most populous, and a victory there would be the most politically consequential. An email sent by a Republican mapmaker and later made public admitted the party sought to “cram all of the Dem garbage” into a small number of districts near Detroit.
The current campaign there was launched not by Democratic operatives but by Katie Fahey, a 28-year-old who used to work for a pro-recycling campaign, and founded the advocacy group Voters Not Politicians after receiving positive feedback to a Facebook post. It collected enough signatures to put a question on this year’s ballot that would appoint a citizens’ commission to draw borders, which requires only a simple majority to pass. Ms Fahey has reason to be optimistic: a poll conducted in September for the Detroit Free Press found that voters supported it by a margin of 48% to 32%, though a plurality of Republicans were opposed.
That should come as little surprise, given that gerrymandering currently benefits Republicans in Michigan—as it does in all but a handful of states nationwide. Nonetheless, the group is eager to stress its bipartisan credentials. At one gathering of volunteers, around a dozen of those attending enthusiastically proclaimed support for both parties.
Even if all four initiatives succeed, the ceiling for sweeping change using this approach alone is fairly low. There are only ten more states that allow ballot initiatives and have multiple congressional districts drawn by their legislatures. Nonetheless, a number of movements in recent history that began with state-level ballot initiatives have wound up gaining widespread acceptance.