We all heard the warnings, about how Democrats were just going through the motions as Republicans mobilized to reshape America’s electorate through sweeping, hyper-partisan gerrymandering. We may even have dismissed them as hyperbole. But no longer. Those warnings are now an urgent, brutal reality.
In Tennessee, state Republicans are preparing to split the Democratic stronghold of Nashville into multiple GOP-dominated districts. Tennessee now offers the roadmap for Republican legislatures in states like Kentucky, Florida, and Arizona to divide and conquer Democrats’ most reliable voter bases. The result will be an undemocratic new era where Republicans enjoy a completely artificial and almost insurmountable electoral advantage in the House of Representatives.
While President Joe Biden rallied party morale with a powerful speech backing voting rights legislation in Atlanta on Tuesday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s Freedom to Vote compromise bill doesn’t go far enough to protect American elections from Republican meddling. Democrats must strengthen its election protection provisions or prepare for a lasting wound to our electoral process and a shellacking in November—one that would be surely followed by even more Republican hijinks to fix the game in their favor.
As the national conversation turns to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s ambitious and fast-approaching Jan. 17 deadline to pass a serious voting reform package, there’s no time to waste in beefing up the softer parts of Manchin’s otherwise admirable bill. In its current form, the Freedom to Vote act would mandate uniform rules for congressional redistricting—and, critically, it covers maps that have already been enacted this cycle. It also boosts transparency around the redistricting process and restores the ability to sue in court over partisan power grabs like what Republicans have planned for Nashville.
The courts will be key to unwinding the web of intentionally complex redistricting maps passed by Republicans, and to a far lesser extent Democratic legislatures in states like Illinois, where Rep. Adam Kinzinger faced an undeniably dirty redistricting process that ultimately led to his retirement announcement this year. Unfortunately, federal courts are currently useless in combating gerrymandering after the Supreme Court’s Republican majority stripped courts of the power to rule on redistricting cases in the 2019 case Rucho v. Common Cause.
With literally no one watching the store, the partisan robbers ran wild. There are now fewer competitive congressional districts than at any time in modern history, according to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, with just under half of the country still locked in the contentious process of redrawing their boundaries for the coming decade. And without the nuisance of federal courts, Republicans in North Carolina can now use their solidly right-leaning state courts to rubber stamp a redistricting map that kneecaps Democrats while bolstering GOP candidates.
But nowhere is as bleak as Texas. In a state that prides itself on denying prisoners not only the right to vote but also basic human rights, Republicans in the state legislature are now counting those same prisoners in a way that pulls representation from Democratic areas and redistributes it to areas where Republicans will gain. In one East Texas town of 16,000 people, over 13,000 are prisoners. Left without a hint of oversight, the Texas Republican Party isn’t far from arguing for counting livestock.
Fortunately for Democrats, the solution to their gerrymandering problem already exists in H.R. 1, the For the People Act. That bill includes stronger provisions for establishing independent redistricting commissions across the country, and follows the lead of states that have implemented practices to reduce the corrosive effect of partisan politics on America’s once-a-decade electoral realignment. Importantly, For the People also offers voters a clear, uniform process for letting the federal government know when a state is violating redistricting laws.
Incorporating For the People into the Freedom to Vote Act will take a Democratic Senate willing to agree to Schumer’s filibuster carve-out proposal, and that means scaling the Blue Wall of Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. But that thought shouldn’t dampen Democratic hopes: Manchin and Sinema have never been shy about voicing their disapproval of the party’s priorities. But on this specific issue, both of the party’s conservatives have been uncharacteristically quiet. In Manchin and Sinema’s silence is the hope that maybe, finally, Democrats have persuaded the party’s institutionalist holdouts that fair elections are worth some filibuster flexibility.
"For us to go it alone, no matter what side does it, it just ends up coming back at you pretty hard," Manchin told reporters earlier this week. But whatever the short-term political costs of decisive action, they are worth paying to avert the long-term harm to democracy of allowing unrepresentative districts to flourish across the country. Years of inaction led to this moment. Now it’s time for senate Democrats to show true leadership in resolving this festering crisis.
Schumer deserves praise for setting a firm date for a vote and pressing Biden into clearly and unequivocally endorsing the end of the undemocratic filibuster. Jan. 17 is a moment of truth not just for the Democratic Party but for our nation, and it will likely be the last time Democrats stick their necks out before entering the fray of the 2022 midterm elections.
Democrats must make this vote count by passing the strongest election protection law possible. If they fall short, Schumer, Biden, and the nation may never get another chance to heal the dangerous sickness currently plaguing America’s electoral process.