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Thursday, 02 November 2017 08:07

How Gerrymandering and Dark Money Work to Keep Americans Politically Sidelined

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Rally in front of the Supreme Court on October 3, 2017, while oral arguments for Gill v. Whitford take place inside.Rally in front of the Supreme Court on October 3, 2017, while oral arguments for Gill v. Whitford take place inside. (Photo via Victoria Pickering/Flickr)JOHANNES EPKE FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

In October, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to Wisconsin's 2011 unabashed partisan gerrymander of their state assembly map. Most of us agree that letting one political party or the other draw election maps explicitly to benefit themselves is wrong, just as we agree that allowing unlimited money to flow into our elections is wrong. What most people don't know is how gerrymandering and dark money are mutually perpetuating pieces of an intentional strategy by billionaires and big business to keep Americans politically sidelined.

The story of Gill, in which super PACs spent millions in Wisconsin leading up to 2010 to win Republicans the state legislature and control redistricting for the next decade, is a perfect opportunity to shine a light on how these pieces fit together.

Redistricting happens every 10 years after each census. In 2002, after the 2000 census, the Republican State Leadership Committee launched a project called REDMAP (REDistricting MAjority Project) with the specific goal of controlling the 2010 redistricting in key states. The strategy was to spend $30 million in state legislative races, mostly raised from big business like Walmart, Pfizer, Devon Energy, AT&T and the tobacco company Reynolds American.

The effort got a huge boost in January 2010, with the Supreme Court opinion in Citizens United v. FEC opening the floodgates of dark money and corporate political spending. Later that year, the strategy paid off in Wisconsin, where big-business-backed Republicans took control of both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature, putting them in control of redistricting. In the next election in 2012, using district maps drawn by the new legislature the year before, Republicans won 234 to 201 seats in the Wisconsin House of Representatives, even though Democrats got 1.4 million more votes.

The anti-democratic impacts of money in politics and gerrymandering are bad enough on their own, but are particularly troubling when one considers how they perpetuate each other. Corporate spending made possible by the Supreme Court bought the Wisconsin gerrymander, and the resulting elected officials who have benefited from the system aren't likely to change it.  

The stakes in Gill were made clear during the oral argument. Justice Ginsburg said, "The precious right to vote, if you can stack a legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote?" Paul Smith -- vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, representing the original plaintiffs -- implored the Court to deem the Wisconsin plan unconstitutional: "[T]he country is going to lose faith in democracy big time because voters are going to be ... like the voters in Wisconsin and, no, it really doesn't matter whether I vote." He continued:

[P]oliticians are never going to fix gerrymandering. They like gerrymandering. ... [T]he problem in this area is if you don't do it, it is locked up. The voters of Wisconsin can't get it on the ballot without the legislature's consent. ... And so ... we're here telling you, you are the only institution in the United States that can ... solve this problem just as democracy is about to get worse because of the way gerrymandering is getting so much worse.

It's not just Republicans. Democrats have proved just as willing to game the system to their advantage. We can cross our fingers and hope that the Court gets this one right, or we can throw our hands up and complain that the deck is stacked, and that we're powerless to change it. But that would be a mistake. We cannot depend on politicians or the Court to save us. The ultimate responsibility to defend our democracy lies with us -- everyday citizens. 

The time to start is now. We need to demand that every candidate running for public office -- Democrat, Independent or Republican -- takes the American Promise pledge to use their office to support the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution to secure fair, free elections by limiting the undue influence of money in politics, and to protect the rights of all Americans to equal participation and representation.  

Only when citizens rise above our differences can we fix a broken system where only the super-wealthy benefit. If we don't do it, no one will.

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