By Congresswoman Julia Brownley
Originally published in the Ventura County Star
In the current political environment, it often feels like there is more that divides us than unites. In reality, there is broad, bipartisan agreement among Americans on many important issues facing our nation. We just see no action on them in Congress.
This is due in large part to partisan gerrymandering that polarizes our political institutions. But if we reform redistricting nationwide, we could break this logjam once and for all.
Back in 2008, California voted to end gerrymandering — when politicians draw the boundaries of federal and state districts to help one political party more than the other — and instead established the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.
This commission charges a diverse group of stakeholders from across the state with setting district lines — taking politicians out of the process and making our democracy more transparent and accountable to those it serves.
Unfortunately, across the country most states still have a system where districts are drawn by politicians to protect their own jobs. Instead of being responsible to their constituents, it polarizes our politics and makes legislators more accountable to special interests.
This sinister practice has eroded public trust and contributes to deep and intractable dysfunction in Congress. As districts have become more politically extreme, we are left with fewer representatives who are charged by their constituents to work in a bipartisan fashion to move our country forward.
That’s why I co-authored legislation with fellow members of the California delegation to require all states to establish independent, citizen-controlled redistricting commissions. Because if we stop partisan gerrymandering, it could clear the gridlock holding up progress on countless common-sense solutions to critical challenges facing our nation.
Here are three examples of just those kinds of policies that have broad, bipartisan support but are stymied by gerrymandered districts.
A 2017 Pew Research poll found that 89 percent of adults favor preventing a person who is mentally ill from purchasing guns. It also showed support for background checks for private and gun-show sales from both gun owners and nonowners alike (77 percent and 87 percent, respectively). Yet despite all of this support, members of Congress from the most extreme districts have blocked even basic gun safety legislation.
We see the same disparity when it comes to women’s access to health care. A Kaiser Family Foundation study this year found that 95 percent of Americans believe it is important to retain protections that ensure private insurers cannot deny coverage to pregnant women and ensure that plans must cover mammograms and cervical cancer screenings with no additional co-pay. Yet time and time again, extremists in Congress demand women’s health care protections be ripped away.
Finally, 86 percent of voters support allowing Dreamers, young people who were brought to the United States as children, to stay here. Despite this widespread support, there hasn’t even been a vote, because of extremists who are beholden to narrow special interests.
There’s a chance all of this could change, though.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a gerrymandering case. After redistricting in 2011, Republicans in Wisconsin won 60 of the state’s 99 Assembly seats in 2012, despite winning only 48.6 percent of the total statewide vote. A federal district court ruled against the map, with one judge writing that it “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.”
While we will have to wait to see how the Supreme Court rules, this landmark case could have wide-reaching implications for how other states handle the redistricting that will occur after the 2020 Census. If Wisconsin’s district map is struck down, perhaps this will spur other states to set up their own independent commissions to end partisan gerrymandering once and for all.
In the meantime, I will keep fighting for legislation built on the experience in California and the five other states that use independent commissions. It shows that redistricting controlled by the people makes for a better democracy of the people.
Now more than ever, we have to restore the trust of the American people in our democratic institutions. The end of gerrymandering could mean the start of real political progress on common-sense solutions to our nation’s most pressing issues.
Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, represents California’s 26th district.