As with many issues working their way through American courts, legal challenges to political gerrymandering have had their calculus upended by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Indeed, one expert offered that the odds of seeing the Court identify a standard for determining whether a political map has become unacceptably partisan “plummeted” with Kennedy’s announcement. But as long as American political representation appears not to reflect the politics of Americans, the movement to reform the drawing of districts will continue to find support.
Such reform is just one of many deemed necessary by Allan J. Lichtman in The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present, forthcoming this September. To Lichtman, the failure to include a guaranteed right to vote in the American Constitution was an error that’s plagued the nation since its inception, and along with a rule combining anti-gerrymandering and the establishment of independent redistricting commissions, he identifies the elimination of felon disenfranchisement, expanded voter registration, and a move away from holding national elections on regular workdays as reforms that would transform voting in the United States. In the following excerpt from The Embattled Vote in America, Lichtman outlines some of the spiraling ramifications of the prevailing practice of politically-drawn districts.
In America’s hard-fought and closely contested presidential election of 2016, only 59 percent of voting-age citizens cast a ballot, equaling about 86 million lost votes. Donald Trump won the presidential election of 2016 with 63 million votes, just 28 percent of America’s voting-age citizens. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 38 percent of American citizens participated, equaling about 140 million lost votes. In closely contested U.S. Senate races across the nation in 2014, candidates typically won seats with votes equal to about one-fifth of the state’s citizens of voting age. Turnout is yet lower in local elections. A 2014 study by two University of Wisconsin researchers found that turnout in 144 mayoral elections across the nation averaged only 25.6 percent of the citizen voting-age population. Thus, candidates could win mayoral elections with support from just over 10 percent of their citizen voting-age constituents.
Turnout is similarly bleak in primary elections that set the choices for voters in the general elections. In 2016, when both parties had spirited contests for their presidential nominations, about 28 percent of voting-age citizens participated in the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries combined. In states holding caucuses, turnout averaged merely 7 percent. Only about 8 percent of American citizens chose Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee and only about 6 percent chose Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. In midterm elections, primary turnout is yet lower. In 2014, just 28.4 million voters participated in the primary elections in forty-five states that had at least one contested statewide primary for both parties, equaling about 15 percent of the citizen voting-age population in those states.
In 1900, the United States led the democratic world in the voting participation of its citizens. Now roles have reversed and America trails most comparable democracies in voter turnout. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study of thirty-five nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked twenty-eighth in voter turnout.
Political gerrymandering and public cynicism about government help explain declining northern and national voter turnout, even as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to minority participation. The gerrymandering of legislative districts to favor one party over another at every level of government kills political competition and the incentive to vote. It lets candidates choose their voters, rather than voters choose their candidates. In the general elections of 2016, 42 percent of state representative seats went uncontested. In congressional elections, 12 percent of seats were uncontested. However, only about 10 percent of the remaining seats were competitive, with a winning margin of less than 10 percentage points. Not surprisingly, relatively few voters turned out in uncontested or lopsided elections.
Since the early 1960s, Americans have lost faith in their government. According to data from the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 77 percent of Americans “trusted the federal government to do what is right just about always / most of the time.” By 1980, Americans’ trust in government had fallen steadily and steeply to just 28 percent. Only once and briefly in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks did trust in government rise above 50 percent. It then steadily declined again to an average of just 19 percent from 2013 to 2017. The paradox here is that a lack of faith in government deters voting, but government will better serve ordinary Americans if they vote in larger numbers.
A consequence of nonvoting, partisan gerrymandering, and public cynicism is an American government that is especially responsive to the wealthiest citizens, a throwback to the early republic when tax and property qualifications prevailed across the nation. A study by Ellen Shearer of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University found that 61 percent of 2012 voters earned $50,000 or more per year, compared to 41 percent of nonvoters. Only 12 percent of nonvoters earned more than $75,000, compared to 31 percent of voters.
Low turnout, an economically stratified electorate, and noncompetitive elections create a political vacuum filled by special-interest groups. The upper-income bias of American turnout produces election results favorable to the wealthy and business. Organizations with money, power, and inside connections can tilt the outcomes of low-turnout contests by targeting only a relatively few voters and backing favored candidates and parties. These interests can operate in the dark as advocacy groups with no financial reporting requirements and the receipt of unlimited funds from wealthy corporations under a recent Supreme Court decision.
Uncontested and lightly contested elections open legislators to the influence of lobbyists that proliferate in Congress, state legislatures, and local governing bodies. In 2016, more than eleven thousand registered lobbyists plied their trade in Washington, most of them representing business interests. Nineteen of the top twenty spenders on lobbying in 2017 were business associations or major corporations like AT&T and Boeing. Heading the list with a combined spending of $164 million were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, and the Business Roundtable. Adding to the total of registered lobbyists were at least an equal number of unregistered “shadow lobbyists.” Although comparable data is hard to compile, much larger numbers of lobbyists are likely active in state and local governments. John Delaney, a successful businessman who won a Maryland seat in Congress, warned that “representative democracy is in crisis in the United States. . . Our electoral process has created perverse incentives that have warped our democracy and empowered special interests and a vocal minority.”
A shattering study by political science professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University validated Delaney’s warning. They found that wealthy interests seeking profit, power, and control significantly shape policy outcomes in the United States. The analysts found that when controlling for the power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a “non-significant, near-zero level.” They found that the policy preferences of business and the rich often sharply diverge from those of ordinary citizens, and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win. An expanded suffrage might not break the golden rule of politics—those who have the gold rule—but it would serve as an important corrective.
Without electoral reform, voter turnout will continue to stagnate in the United States, and a small minority of the nation’s citizens will nominate and elect the public officials who govern the nation. Changes in electoral laws and regulations are not a magic wand for raising turnout, but they do matter, as shown by the experiences of high-turnout nations. According to data compiled for 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 15 percent of respondents reported that they could not vote because they were unregistered, and another 15 percent were not asked, responded “did not know,” or refused to answer the question.