Headlines: Gerrymandering comes with a high price tag. Fair Representation doesn’t
Taxpayers pay millions for lawsuits over redistricting maps that limit their choices and debase democracy
Today’s high-tech redistricting maps, devised with sophisticated computers and comprehensive voter databases, can deliver safe districts for a decade, robbing voters of meaningful elections and fair representation in Congress and state legislatures.
Then those elected officials, safely ensconced behind rigged lines, become responsive only to the small primary electorate that actually picks the winners in most districts. Completely unconcerned about an uncompetitive general election, officeholders push policy to the extreme to cater to those types of voters that dominate in the decisive primary. Those legislators block action on a broad range of issues where there’s widespread consensus on the best way forward.
That toxic dynamic not only results in millions of voters losing influence at the ballot box, but it also ends up costing taxpayers a lot of money. Voters literally pay millions when their representatives defend their indefensible jigsawed maps in court.
From state to state, the numbers for legal bills and consultants are staggering. The accounts below are incomplete, they will only get larger. Even so, the full magnitude is often obscured by lawmakers.
Ohio: One Republican-connected law firm, infamous for defending racial gerrymanders, billed the state $589,512.62 for advice and legal counsel – and that’s only through early April 2022.
According to Ohio’s attorney general’s office, attorneys have already racked up some $962,000 in taxpayer-paid legal bills. The fight could continue for years.
Florida: Lawmakers budgeted $1 million for additional legal challenges, correctly anticipating that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wild partisan and racial gerrymander would land in court. This battle has also likely just begun. The cost to taxpayers last decade for maps that were ultimately thrown out as unconstitutional: More than $8 million.
Louisiana: Experts have estimated that taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of thousands in legal fees. A law firm with deep ties to the GOP, BakerHostetler, makes a minimum of $10,000 a month, a number that jumps to $60,000 when court dates are required.
Wisconsin: Lawmakers in this gerrymandered state – knowing more litigation was coming this cycle – signed contracts for more than $1 million in legal fees even before a case was officially filed. Last cycle, the fight by Republicans to defend perhaps the nation’s most severely gerrymandered maps cost taxpayers some $3.5 million in legal fees.
Pennsylvania: Litigation over election-related issues here has cost taxpayers some $4 million, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. While it’s not known how much of that is redistricting-related, most of the $1 million spent by Senate Republicans has gone to a Virginia firm where Jason Torchinsky – one of the most prominent GOP redistricting lawyers – is a partner.
Kansas: By April, taxpayers were on the hook for $250,000 in legal fees, and that’s before the case went to the state supreme court in May.
We don’t yet know what the cost to taxpayers will be for litigation in Maryland, New York, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and North Carolina, among other states. We do know, however, that the ultimate bill in North Carolina alone surpassed $10 million last decade. And that opponents of the map gerrymandered by New York Democrats looked to raise between $1.5 and $3 million for the challenge.
Most of this money gets funneled from politicians to powerful law firms with close ties to these politicians – like in the Keystone State with one firm founded by a former aide to a Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, and another that employs the chairman of the state Republican party.
In many ways, these are incestuous relationships. But adding insult to this injury is that taxpayers end up paying to defend the maps that limit their choices and debase democracy. It’s the ultimate lose-lose, an all-expense-paid trip to a masochists’ convention. Lose your voice, then pay the legal bills for the politicians who took it away.
It’s an outrage, and just one more reason why judges who suggest that voters can control gerrymandering by evicting the politicians who do it fundamentally don’t understand how completely closed the circle has become: There’s big bucks to be made by selling out fair elections. Politicians entrench themselves, then enrich their cronies. “We the People” pay for it and endure the harm.
It’s all more evidence that our redistricting process is broken and eroding democracy itself. It’s one more reason why reform is so crucial. And it’s one more reason the right reform matters.
After all, voters in Ohio, New York and Florida all thought that they were fixing their processes with various forms of independent commissions and state constitutional amendments. A well-structured commission helps; California, for example, has had no litigation this cycle.
But the fundamental problem remains single-member districts. As long as the country remains so evenly divided, as long as district lines determine winners and losers, as long as sophisticated mapping software and voluminous voter data can dye districts red or blue for a decade, partisans will fight to control and manipulate those lines.
And as long as the federal courts continue to bless this debasement of democracy, and Congress fails to create any standard to rein it in, there’s no incentive for redistricting not to be a race to the bottom, driven by the very worst actors.
Multi-member districts and a more proportional House is the way to change these incentives. The Fair Representation Act, introduced in Congress by Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, would create larger districts represented by three, four or five members, and elected with ranked choice voting. Every district would become a swing district likely to elect Democrats and Republicans, maybe even independents.
With multiple seats being elected per district, the lines themselves, drawn by a commission, would hardly matter at all. We’d stop the bitter, internecine fighting about them. We’d put an end to endless litigation. We’d save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. We’d strengthen elections and make every voice matter again.
The game is rigged against voters by politicians, for the benefit of themselves and their well-connected friends. We won’t get a different outcome until we rework the rules.
Maria Merkle provided research assistance for this piece
David Daley, @davedaley3
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