Voters Should Choose Their Politicians, Not the Other Way Around | Opinion

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau released the first batch of data from the 2020 census. On the surface, this might appear a mundane act by a federal agency. In fact, it was the starting gun for a decennial tradition in American politics: ruthless, democracy-distorting, hyper-partisan gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts.

Gerrymandering is not new. State legislatures have been drawing district boundaries that unfairly advantage one side or the other since our country's founding.

But over the past few decades, enabled by advances in data analysis and driven by political expediency, gerrymandering has become endemic—and increasingly sophisticated. Districts have been engineered to absurd levels of partisan perfection. Lines zig and zag, dividing voters neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street. You might need an advanced degree to draw a gerrymandered district. But you don't need a PhD to spot one.

With rigged districts, politicians pick their voters and not the other way around. That's a disgrace.

I stepped down from Congress in 2011, after more than a decade and a half representing Tennessee's Third District. In the years since, at block parties and in the aisles of supermarkets, many of my former constituents have pulled me aside to ask how politics got so ugly.

Gerrymandering is a big part of the answer. The easiest way to win a competitive election, politicians realized long ago, is to prevent it from becoming competitive in the first place. Through partisan redistricting, politicians have transformed contested purple districts into solid red or blue strongholds. Of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, just 10 percent are considered true toss-ups in next year's midterm elections. State legislative races, too, are becoming less and less competitive.

The result has been partisan rancor. Politicians in safe seats have little incentive to reach across the aisle or consider the needs of any constituency other than their base. Fire and brimstone win primaries; common sense and compromise don't.

Polling booths
TOPSHOT - Voters fill in their ballots at polling booths in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 3, 2020. - Americans were voting on Tuesday under the shadow of a surging coronavirus pandemic to decide whether to reelect Republican Donald Trump, one of the most polarizing presidents in US history, or send Democrat Joe Biden to the White House. Joseph Prezioso / AFP/Getty Images

Competition in a democracy functions much the way it does in a capitalist economy. It puts a premium on progress and efficiency. It improves the product. When a democracy is competitive, things get done. When it isn't, gridlock sets in.

Gerrymandering poses a fundamental threat to our system of self-government. One of our country's bedrock principles is equal representation—the idea that every vote counts as much as any other. Gerrymandering, by design, ensures that some voters count more than others.

Gerrymandering also undercuts another core American ideal: fair play. Changing the rules to make it more likely that you'll win isn't "hardball." It's cheating. Voters know it and, increasingly, distrust their representatives for it. Congressional approval is abysmally low, and for good reason. The impetus for members to find areas of common ground just isn't there anymore.

For all those reasons and more, to heal our politics and strengthen our democracy, we need to end partisan redistricting now.

There's a solution within reach. Today, more than a dozen states rely on independent, nonpartisan commissions to define the boundaries of congressional or state legislative districts. These commissions help ensure lines are drawn fairly. Across the country, they've been overwhelmingly successful at producing better maps. More states should turn redistricting over to these commissions.

But federal action is needed, too. In 2005, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and I introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which would have required all states to use independent commissions for congressional redistricting. Congress chose not to pass the act.

That same legislation was reintroduced this year by Rep. Steve Cohen. If signed into law, this legislation would go a long way toward fixing a fundamentally broken system. The legislation must be bipartisan, as neither party has an exclusive grasp on integrity.

Some representatives, especially those from heavily gerrymandered districts, will no doubt be hesitant to support such a bill. They shouldn't be. Any politician worth their salt ought to be able to win an election on principles and policy. In sports as in politics, if you have to cheat to win, you deserve to lose. Congress should end gerrymandering so America's voters can win.

Zach Wamp, a Republican, represented Tennessee's Third Congressional District in Congress from 1995-2011. He is a member of the National Council on Election Integrity, and currently serves as co-chair of Issue One's ReFormers Caucus.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.