In a state where the largest headlines out of the legislature seem to be exclusively about dysfunction and gridlock, the recent state gerrymandering debacle has been a thrilling relief. It has the signs of excitement: partisan pandering and a separation-of-powers showdown.
And though the U.S. Supreme Court recently ended the issue by ruling that district lines drawn by the state Supreme Court will stand, there still should be interest in the issue. As the first successful challenge to gerrymandered districts, the case sets a precedent. The challenge moves towards a more democratic electoral process. Other states will see challenges to their more artistic districts, and legislators will unavoidably have a new mindset in redistricting after the 2020 census. While this is a step forward, don’t jump the gun – democracy is not in the clear. While gerrymandering may strain the limited public attention granted to the structure of elections, there are still structural threats to American elections. Even in competitive districts, the digital bubble will still create isolation and partisan screaming. Political psychology shows that we constantly reaffirm our opinions, choosing friends based on whether they agree with us and discrediting news that does not support our beliefs. Even with ads from differing viewpoints, districts with contested elections can’t escape the effects of Facebook and Twitter. The electoral system itself, first-past-the-post, eliminates political diversity and promotes bickering. As long as elections can be won with a plurality, the two party system will be reaffirmed, even in districts that see competitive elections. And the reality of those elections is a barrage of attack ads, not a discussion of the issues. Politics are polarizing, we can't fully avoid that. However, with the redistricting there is a plausible step toward structural reform and public consciousness on elections. Hopefully opposition to gerrymandering will shed its partisan skin – we should all want districts that serve the interests of the public, not parties. There are steps that we can take individually, like exercising greater caution in our news consumption and avoiding digital insult wars. But reform depends on a willingness to act, and if we are unwilling to consider work for change, the system will stay the same. Otherwise we will be debating the same issues to infinity. Challenges to gerrymandering are a step away from trench warfare politics, but this step is only effective if there is a continued effort to improve elections and political discussion. Elections aren’t just a competition for candidates – they are a test of us, too. Even as our community does the probable and reelects our incumbents, we should work to broaden perspectives and explore other viewpoints.