Nick Seabrook’s gerrymandering history ‘One Person One Vote’

On the shelf

One Person, One Voice: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America

By Nick Seabrook
Pantheon: 384 pages, $30

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There is so much wrong with our political system: the electoral college, lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices, the ambiguous wording of certain constitutional amendments. But Nick Seabrook’s One Person, One Vote argues that many of America’s problems stem from a perpetual problem.

Gerrymandering involves redefining congressional, state, and local districts for political gain. It is done by both sides and is often used to suppress minority representation, particularly after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which removed barriers that had long prevented blacks from voting in the South.

Seabrook’s title refers to a series of 1960s Supreme Court decisions that dictated that each district had to contain approximately the same number of people. But it’s also an ironic title, because the increasingly sophisticated process circumvents that requirement, stretching and squeezing districts to dictate outcomes and making votes count less and less.

A portrait of a man wearing a collared shirt and blazer.

Nick Seabrook is the author of One Person, One Vote.

(Renee Parenteau)

“The number of competitive seats has declined every decade and is now at its lowest level in probably a hundred years,” Seabrook, a professor at the University of North Florida, said during a recent video chat. Going forward, the conservative-majority Supreme Court appears to be allowing further map distortions as states wage angry lawsuits to settle a new round of county redistribution.

In our conversation, Seabrook made it clear that practical solutions exist, but viable ones are scarce. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gun control is just the latest source of frustration at government inaction. Republican congressmen in safe, rigged districts only worry about getting picked from the right. Is that an additional obstacle to meaningful reforms?

Yes, but it’s not just about gun control. Gerrymandering has widened the rift between the parties and is contributing to the disappearance of the centrists. So we’re starting to see people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert winning elections and sitting in their seats confident enough to do the things they did. They’re obviously outliers, but they indicate a broader trend. It manifests itself on both sides, but Republicans are more extreme. It’s likely to look even worse in the final cycle that emerges from the reallocation. [Districts are redrawn based on a new census at the beginning of every decade.]

Both parties gerrymander. Are Republicans more willing to give up democratic norms, or just better at it?

"One Person, One Voice: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America" by Nick Seabrook

I don’t think the Republican Party was any sneakier or sneakier, they just had better luck and better timing. They came to power in the 2010 election and gained control of the state legislatures just at the time when the technology was in place to more accurately predict how districts would fare in the future. Now these Gerrymanders last a full decade.

There is a feeling that the Democrats have unilaterally disarmed. In California, with Proposition 11, many powerful Democrats – Nancy Pelosi and others – opposed the creation of this commission. Otherwise, imagine how far Democrats could go to manipulate the 55 congressional districts. California alone might have been enough to undo all other Republican gains.

What do you think are the most egregious recent examples of gerrymandering?

The two worst nationally are Florida and Texas. You bit the apple in 2010 and learned from that experience. With new technology, people have packed their opponents into a few supermajority seats and made the rest more competitive to maximize the number of wins your side can make. But what they realized is that if you take things too far, you can end up creating too many competing seats and it’s better to prop up the seats you already hold.

State politics are often overlooked. Is gerrymandering worse there or are we just not paying attention?

It’s both. I wish the national media paid more attention to manipulating state legislatures. We pay a lot of attention to Congress, but while the GOP can win seats by gerrymandering in Florida and Texas, the Democrats can do it in Illinois, so it’s a bit nullified. But that is not the case at the state level.

Look at Wisconsin – theirs [Republicans’] Margin in the state legislature has barely fallen below two-thirds since 2010, despite elections in which the Democrats overall won the popular vote. This is even worse in terms of its anti-democratic implications. They made entire state governments uncompetitive for a decade.

People hold signs that say "No more gerrymandering" and "Fair cards now."

More than 100 opponents of Republican redistribution plans gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison last October.

(Scott Bauer/Associated Press)

They blame the Supreme Court for not solving gerrymandering since the 1990s and use the term “cowardice” in reference to Anthony Kennedy’s ramblings. Do the details of gerrymandering lawsuits matter, or are we bound by the whims of the judges?

Initially, in racist gerrymandering, facts made a difference. There were things that were incredibly egregious throughout the South — Alabama redrawn Tuskegee’s borders to remove all but four African American residents from the city limits. There was a consensus that these things were unconstitutional, but that was the low-hanging fruit.

Then in the 1980s, with One Person, One Voice, we saw more nuanced cases, and things began to diverge ideologically. Republicans are becoming increasingly skeptical that courts should intervene. In the 1990s we came into majority-minority districts and used the redistribution of districts for affirmative action, and that’s more controversial.

I am critical of the conservative majority in the court, but more because of their hypocrisy than the underlying merits of the cases. It’s okay to say that the redistribution should be racially neutral. But with partisan gerrymanders in the 1990s, they would throw up their hands and say, “It’s really complicated and I don’t know if we have proper standards to decide this,” and that very same day they made decisions for racist gerrymandering -Cases where they had a finely tuned, almost mystical, sense of where [it] went too far.

Would open, bipartisan, ranked primaries remove some of Gerrymander’s incentives?

It’s not a panacea, but ranking is preferable. But ultimately, the gerrymandering problem won’t be fixed until we strip politicians of power, as every other country has recognised. Allowing political actors to draw the maps is too great a temptation to resist.

Will the politicians give up this power?

Even in red states like Utah and Ohio, when given the opportunity to vote on initiatives or a referendum, people vote for reforms. The problem is getting those questions on the ballot first. But Congress could pass legislation for the House of Representatives. Recent voting rights legislation included reforms in their draft legislation, but they have not yet been passed. When that happens, maybe some momentum will build up. But the beginning is difficult.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-13/gerrymandering-nick-seabrook-one-person-one-vote Nick Seabrook’s gerrymandering history ‘One Person One Vote’

Sarah Ridley

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