Alternate headline: Democrats get hoist with their own petard. After getting their collective clock cleaned at the state-legislature level in 2010’s midterms, the party reacted to the loss of redistricting power by demanding that the authority for that pass to independent commissions. They have made gerrymandering a top complaint against Republicans for the last decade in a sour-grapes effort to remove that political advantage they squandered in the wake of ObamaCare.
In 2020, Democrats gained a little more traction in state legislatures, Politico asserts, but now can’t use that leverage for redistricting. Why? Because of the independent commissions they established — largely only in states they already controlled:
Oregon Democrats had finally secured total control of redistricting for the first time in decades.
Then, just months before they were set to draw new maps, they gave it away.
In a surprise that left Democrats from Salem to Washington baffled and angry, the state House speaker handed the GOP an effective veto over the districts in exchange for a pledge to stop stymieing her legislative agenda with delay tactics. The reaction from some of Oregon’s Democratic House delegation was unsparing: “That was like shooting yourself in the head,” Rep. Kurt Schrader told POLITICO. Rep. Peter DeFazio seethed: “It was just an abysmally stupid move on her part.”
Yet what happened this spring in Oregon is just one example, though perhaps the most extreme one, of a larger trend vexing Democratic strategists and lawmakers focused on maximizing the party’s gains in redistricting. In key states over the past decade, Democrats have gained control of state legislatures and governorships that have long been in charge of drawing new maps — only to cede that authority, often to independent commissions tasked with drawing political boundaries free of partisan interference.
Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. The fight against gerrymandering has been chock full of stupidity and manipulation from the start. The founders understood that redistricting would require political accountability, which is why they gave that task to state legislatures from the beginning. Legislators that performed that task poorly or corruptly could be voted out of office. Unelected “independent commissioners” cannot.
On top of that, Democrats’ attempt to lay the blame for gerrymandering entirely at the feet of Republicans is so dishonest as to be risible. There’s a reason that Democrats had a 40-year majority in the House even while Republicans won an equal number (or more) of presidential elections and had regular turns running the Senate. Gerrymandering goes back two centuries and has been used by both parties to establish political and electoral support.
The Politico piece plays very sympathetically to Democrats’ plight, highlighting their commitment to “good government” (which should be phrased good governance). Passing off critical functions of representative democracy to unaccountable bureaucrats is neither good government nor good governance, however. This task should be handled by elected officials accountable to voters. Democrats burned themselves by embracing the Wilsonian rule-by-bureaucrats model, a model which never should have been adopted in the first place.
Republican states were smarter than that. Perhaps we should be celebrating that outcome rather than lamenting the backfire that Democrats created for themselves in Oregon and elsewhere.
Update: Darn it, I usually get Shakespeare right, but it should have been “hoist with his own petard,” not by it. I’ve fixed it now.