Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder joked over the summer that he plans to “make redistricting sexy” as head of the new National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
I don’t know if drawing congressional district lines will ever be “sexy.”
Let’s just say that for the first time the issue is smoking hot.
In the past month some Republicans have broken ranks — from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — to speak out about the breakdown in national politics mostly caused by GOP gerrymandering of congressional districts.
The facts tell a damning story about the damage being done by partisan state legislatures drawing congressional maps with one goal — to grab power for themselves.
In the 2016 election, more than 400 of 435 House races were scored as “safe” for incumbent Republicans and Democrats because of gerrymandering.
That translates into a reality where most members of Congress do not have to listen to anyone in the other party.
Incumbents don’t even have to listen to people in their own party, so long as those people are not extreme voices posing a primary challenge.
The poison fruit produced by gerrymandering paralyzes politicians. Nothing gets done in Congress. It contributes to Congress’s high disapproval rating from both Republicans and Democrats. About 72 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.
Next month, the pressure building in opposition to gerrymandering will be on display at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wisconsin Republicans are being challenged for drawing state legislative districts to isolate likely Democratic voters — mostly minorities. They successfully created a map of congressional districts in 2011 that assured Republican supermajority control of the state Assembly even as Democrats won more votes.
The Washington Post editorial board described the map drawn by Wisconsin Republicans as an example of “how increasingly powerful technology allows partisan mapmakers to distort representation with ever-greater precision.”
Last week, the importance of the Wisconsin case grew as the U.S. Supreme Court put a hold on a lower court’s ruling on gerrymandering in Texas. It was a 5-4 decision along ideological lines.
The lower court found that the Texas GOP packed minority voters into two congressional districts in a violation of the voters’ constitutional rights to equal representation. The lower court directed the legislature to redraw the state’s congressional maps.
Now the Supreme Court, with the Wisconsin case pending, wants to have its say.
In briefs filed in the Wisconsin case, McCain, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) argue that gerrymandering is effectively killing public trust in the federal government by making it impossible for Congress to compromise and find solutions to national problems.
Another alarm about gerrymandering has been sounded by Schwarzenegger. The Republican has started an online funding campaign to fight partisan packing of congressional districts.
Picking up on the title of one of his movies, Schwarzenegger calls the effort “Terminate Gerrymandering.”
California did away with partisan redistricting in 2010 and gave the task to a nonpartisan independent panel, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. The former governor said he wants other states to follow the example in order to restore balance to Capitol Hill.
This heightened concern about gerrymandering is also being felt in Florida. Two former Florida Congressmen — Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, and David Jolly, a Republican — are conducting a statewide tour offering their ideas for how to make Washington work again. At the top of their list is gerrymandering reform.
“Democrats and Republicans often fear primary election challenges more than an opponent from the opposite party,” wrote The Tampa Bay Times editorial board after talking with the pair. “That means there is little incentive in Congress to build bipartisan support for anything or to compromise.”
As if on cue, two prominent GOP moderates in the House — Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.) and Dave Trott (Mich.) — said they would leave Congress at the next election.
Dent, head of The Tuesday Group of moderate House Republicans, explained his decision to walk away by lamenting the loss of the “sensible center” in Congress. That center has been squeezed by gerrymandering.
Dent and Trott join Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) as centrist Republicans who apparently concluded they don’t have a place in a GOP House caucus dominated by hard-right Freedom Caucus politics.
Meanwhile, Democrats, led by Holder, are for the first time putting money into the fight for honest redistricting.
“The most important turning point for the future of the Democratic Party will take place in 2021 when states redraw their Congressional and state legislative lines,” reads the group’s website.
Well, when it comes to getting the public to focus on gerrymandering as the root of political dysfunction maybe Holder — to quote Justin Timberlake — is the man to bring sexy back.