Editor’s Note: Eric H. Holder, Jr. is the Chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the 82nd Attorney General of the United States. Neera Tanden is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Too often in the United States, our lawmakers prize their own reelection more than actually doing the work that matters for their constituents or their policy preferences.
This problem is exacerbated by politicians who use partisan gerrymandering to hand-pick their voters instead of allowing the people to choose their representatives. Once their reelection is assured, these politicians frequently ignore the voters’ concerns about some of the most pressing issues of our time – including curbing the epidemic of gun violence.
In its most pernicious form, partisan gerrymandering can allow a particular party to earn a minority of the statewide vote but still hold a majority of seats in the state legislatures – or in the US House of Representatives. Put another way, a majority of the people can be governed by the minority party. This corruption of the democratic process has occurred with alarming frequency in recent years.
The Center for American Progress (CAP) has conducted a study that examines the most recent elections for every seat in the state legislatures of North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In each state, residents cast more total votes for Democrats than they did for Republicans. Yet, in all four of these places, Republicans currently control both houses of the state legislature.
Partisan gerrymandering allows these politicians – who know they will retain majorities before the elections even happen – to stop listening to the citizens of their state while they pander to the extremes of their base and the special interests who fund their reelection. Just ask advocates trying to address the critical issue of preventing gun violence.
Across the country, a strong majority of voters support commonsense policies that can help prevent gun violence. These measures include requiring universal background checks for all gun sales to ensure that individuals prohibited by law from possessing guns aren’t able to easily able to evade that restriction through a private sale.
Another gun safety measure that has broad public support are extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), a civil legal process that enables family members or law enforcement officials to petition a judge for the temporary removal of firearms from a person who presents an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others.
Despite support among Democratic state legislators and the public for universal background checks and ERPO laws in these four states – and despite voters casting more votes for Democratic legislators who would be likely to pass them – legislation on these measures has stalled.
North Carolina paints an especially damning profile of this failure in our democracy. The state’s population suffers gun murders at a 16% higher rate than the national average, and has earned a “D” rating on the Giffords Law Center’s annual Gun Law Scorecard for the strength of its gun laws. It should come as little surprise then that addressing the state’s fatally broken gun laws was a top priority of Democratic leaders in the state this legislative session.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, along with Democratic leaders in North Carolina’s legislature, have called for the adoption of ERPO legislation, as well as another gun violence prevention bill that would, among other things, require permits for assault weapons purchases, impose a 72-hour waiting period, limit the size of ammunition magazines and mandate safe storage of guns. But the Republican-controlled legislature refuses to consider these proposals.
How can the Republicans block progress on this issue? In North Carolina’s 2018 election, Democrats won a majority of all the votes cast for major-party candidates – 50.5% of the votes for state Senate, and 51.2% of votes for state House. And yet, Republicans won the majority in both chambers – 58% of the seats in the Senate and 54.2% of the seats in the House. Because of gerrymandering, the wishes of the people are ignored and North Carolina’s legislature continually fails to act to prevent gun violence.
This situation is simply unacceptable. The composition of our state legislatures should more accurately reflect the results of our democratic elections – and their policy agendas should follow the beliefs of the people they represent. But in order for that to truly happen in the United States, we need to end the scourge of partisan and racial gerrymandering.
To fully address the threat of gerrymandering, both Congress and the state legislatures need to act. In every state – and at every level of government – districts should be drawn by nonpartisan, independent commissions, and they should be required to fairly represent the population of the state.
Fortunately, a number of states, like Michigan, have taken the critical step of putting the power to draw districts in the hands of an independent commission – taking that power away from incumbent politicians who abuse the process. Democrats in Congress have also recognized the need for independent commissions; the For the People Act (H.R. 1) that passed the House would require independent commissions to draw federal districts.
Legislative action is all the more important in light of the Supreme Court’s recent holding that federal courts cannot adjudicate partisan gerrymandering cases.
But, unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, have yet to allow a vote on that measure.
Until our country puts an end to partisan gerrymandering, politicians will continue to place their own self-interest and the desires of the special interests who fund them over the will of the public. This is true on the urgent issue of gun violence prevention and so many other pressing issues that we face as a country
Only when we make our political infrastructure more fair can we ensure that our lawmakers are actually accountable to their constituents – and truly create a government of the people, by the people, for the people.