Politically involved students at Yale need to reconsider the efficacy of their activism. The recent presidential election has revitalized our personal engagement with national politics. On campus, I see my peers dedicating more of their time to specialized topics such as gun control, immigration and systemic income inequality than ever before.
However, we are working within the confines of a broken political order. Our congressional election procedures, a critical aspect of the “operating system” on which policymaking is based, are tainted by gerrymandering. Gerrymandering entails political incumbents on the state level forcing a community to redistrict, strengthening the proportional representation of their given voter base. In other words, an incumbent redistricts to pick and choose his or her electoral base by manipulating the boundaries of a constituency.
Yale student efforts to influence federal legislation are significantly weakened if politicians in many states continue to disenfranchise voters with dissenting political opinions or minority backgrounds, potentially skewing representation in Congress. This issue does not just affect those of us who vote in Connecticut; this affects everyone.
For example, in Georgia, House Republicans have passed a law re-gerrymandering nine districts to relocate African-American voters — who vote primarily Democrat — away from Republican swing districts and into Democratic precincts. This unbridled attempt to shore up political power arguably violates the terms of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Federal courts have directly intervened in other states such as Texas and Virginia, where they have pushed back against racially based gerrymandering by Republican legislatures. However, in many cases of congressional redistricting, it can be challenging to distinguish unconstitutional vote-rigging based on racial discrimination from instances of political expediency.
After the Republican party swept state legislatures in 2010 and aggressively engaged in redistricting, it has become entrenched and primarily self-serving at the local level. Under the cover of laws that require district maps to preserve natural boundaries and comply with the Voting Rights Act’s protections for racial minorities, legislators have drawn up precincts that defy the laws of geometry. According to one political analyst, there is even a district in Virginia that can only be fully traversed by taking a boat on the James River.
These seemingly minor cartographical modifications have an outsized effect on national politics. For instance, even though most registered voters in North Carolina are Democrats, legislators have managed to create 10 Republican and three Democratic House seats. In Wisconsin in 2012, Democrats prevailed in the popular vote but received a third less State Assembly seats than Republicans. These flagrant uses of gerrymandering turn voters into political pawns, creating a gulf between institutions and the people those institutions serve. This threatens the very basis of our representative democracy.
The issues surrounding redistricting are complex and, ultimately, cross party lines. Democrats have also relied on gerrymandering. Maryland is known for its heavily partisan congressional makeup, and California’s district orientation leans more Democrat than its presidential vote suggests. Some experts also argue that because Democrats often live in cities, Republican voters are more evenly distributed in nonurban areas, skewing congressional representation in their favor. Both sides of the aisle must work together to mitigate state level corruption that deleteriously impacts Republicans and Democrats, and irreparably damages voter confidence in our civic institutions.
Yale students can — and must — play an active role in gerrymandering reform to level the playing field. In the absence of a clear Supreme Court policy on politically-motivated gerrymandering, innovative statistical models measuring abnormalities in district representation may come to dictate federal oversight of this phenomenon. We need a student organization that supports these ongoing efforts in our nation’s courts to fight corrupt redistricting practices through objective analysis. Furthermore, Yale students can play an active role in pushing for bipartisan and independent redistricting committees, which are facing staunch resistance in states that have proposed them. In light of inflated Republican representation in Congress, we can also choose to support the efforts of former Attorney General Eric Holder to generate healthier competition in down-ballot elections.
In an era defined by hyperpartisanship, Americans from different backgrounds are beginning to share a growing aversion toward political institutions that seem to be stagnating. We must find a common cause in the fight to repair our nation’s fundamental civic infrastructure so that we can ultimately return to the policy issues that matter the most to each of us.
Thomas Rosenkranz is a senior in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .