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Sheila Kennedy: Here’s how gerrymandering gives rural voters more influence

With the (tardy) release of the last census, states are embarking on redistricting. In states where the party controlling the Legislature draws the lines, that means gerrymandering—creating districts favoring the party currently in control. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans.

The results of gerrymandering are pernicious.

Gerrymandering gives rural voters (who reliably vote Republican) disproportionate influence. Thanks to gerrymandering, most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voices are vastly overrepresented. (The last Republican Senate “majority” was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic “minority.”) State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas.

Gerrymandering allows the GOP to control state legislatures with supermajorities even when voters prefer Democratic candidates by hundreds of thousands of votes. It thus nullifies elections and insulates lawmakers from democratic accountability.

Last year, the Cook Report calculated that one out of 20 Americans currently lives in a competitive congressional district. That lack of electoral competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why vote at all?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: It is very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is usually a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate who offers no new ideas, no energy and no genuine challenge. And in increasing numbers of Statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed by even a token candidate.

Credit where credit is due: Republicans are much better at gerrymandering than Democrats. In 2011, the GOP’s “RedMap” project was wildly successful, with Republicans winning many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have produced.

(One unanticipated consequence of that success has been especially damaging: The people elected to Congress from deep-red districts that mapmakers had created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party or to reasonable policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the rabid voters to whom they are beholden and in avoiding a primary battle that—thanks to the gerrymander—can come only from the right. They have brought government to a halt.)

Here in Indiana, as legislators once again prepare to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their representatives, continuing disenfranchisement of city dwellers will have very practical consequences. Just one example: the connection between gerrymandering and the thousands of potholes residents of Indianapolis dodge every spring.

Indiana’s urban areas have been “carved up” and the carved-up portions married to larger rural areas in a purposeful effort to dilute the voices and votes of city dwellers, who have a tendency to vote Democratic. As a result, when the Legislature allocates money through distribution formulas for the state’s streets and roads, it is far more generous to the thinly populated rural areas of the state than to cities like Indianapolis, where the majority of Indiana’s residents live.

If you don’t care about the connection between gerrymandering and democracy, think about the connection between fair and equal representation and state distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim.

Kennedy recently retired as professor of law and public policy at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.