Gerrymandering hurts the minority often in unforeseen ways

by | Apr 25, 2024 | Politics/Government

photo from Indiana Capital Chronicle/North Carolina Newsline

Gerrymandering is more than math. I have had this conversation many times over the years with a variety of people, and I have been surprised by their surprise almost every time. 

Whichever party is drawing the maps of legislative districts, of any kind, they draw them to benefit themselves of course. That part is math, very basic math. In Indiana, Republicans in the Statehouse have drawn the last two maps that determine the House, Senate and Congressional districts. And they have served themselves up a lovely matrix of sweetheart deals. 

Last week, James Briggs of the Indianapolis Star wrote a column full of news in it about Sen. David Niezgodski, a Democrat from South Bend, who has been accused of sexually harassing a former employee in 2017. The premise in Briggs’ column is that Democrats “maintained a breathtaking lack of curiosity” about the accusations since they first surfaced several years ago. While I primarily agree, I contend the situation is lacking in systemic ways too.  

Personally, I’m not curious about the accusations. I believe them entirely. But what is the remedy? In a word, elections. There hasn’t been a long line of candidates pining for the chance to replace Niezgodski. Or any line at all. In his first reelection run in 2020, he was unopposed. I guess the party could have tried to find another candidate that year, but that’s not as easy as one might think. 

Why would any Democrat want his job? Who wants a career of certain defeat on every ideological issue for the entirety of that career? Back to that “conversation” I’ve had so many times. 

Lopsided

Gerrymandering in Indiana has created lopsided representation in the Statehouse. We talk about the math all the time, without talking deeply enough about the math’s impact. There are currently 40 Democrat members of the 150 available in the Indiana General Assembly. All of them should be applauded for serving at all.

It takes an unusual amount of patience and tolerance to endure life in what is supposed to be a deliberative body but is now overpopulated with a supermajority made up of unpersuadable people. It also takes an unusual amount of talent to successfully manage through it or overcome it to deliver positive results for one’s constituency. I wrote about two members who have that talent a few weeks ago, Sens. Andrea Hunley and Shelli Yoder. There are others. In the House, Blake Johnson and Carey Hamilton come to mind.

The job, as it currently exists, is profoundly unattractive. What it leads to is a reluctance to run, just like it leads to a reluctance to vote. 

In the private sector, it’s synonymous with market power. Any prospective new entrant in the smart phone or online retailing markets, as examples, can’t make it on a good idea and a few good investors. They need a fantastic idea and phenomenal investors. And still, they need to prepare for a marathon that they will likely lose. 

The current district boundaries result in some obvious and ludicrous results on an individual basis on the side of the supermajority. The matrix in place assures that many elected officials ascend to the legislature and congress by successfully pandering only to the most extreme voters within the GOP. This drives down deliberative quality, though that is incidental. The goal is control, and that mission has been solidly accomplished for the foreseeable future. No news there. 

A victorious candidate on the Republican side is immediately able to move and pass legislation as a member of the supermajority. It doesn’t take any elevated persuasive skill or some innovative idea for these folks, that benefit just comes with the job. In most cases, all they have to do is win in the May primary.

The percentages

Indiana is not 80% Republican. But the Indiana Senate is. Indiana is also not 70% Republican. But the Indiana House is. Even the congressional districts have been drawn to be safely Republican in seven out of nine, or 77% of them. 

In 2020, Donald Trump won Indiana over Joe Biden, 58% to 41%. This is a pretty typical partisan split over the last half century. If that split existed in the Statehouse, the number and quality of candidates seeking office would skyrocket. So would voter engagement. And the cycle would simply make Indiana a better place. 

A Republican presidential candidate has only crossed the 60% threshold twice in my lifetime: Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Richard Nixon in 1972.  

Niezgodski has an opponent in the May primary. Tim Swager is the St. Joseph County Treasurer and is giving the incumbent a challenge. Congratulations to him for entering this uninviting arena. And this is one outcome I am certainly curious to see. 

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