David Phillips: Say no to ugly gerry

This is the headline as it appeared in print.
David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

Three Chicago-based digital designers have created a font whose letters are composed of actual congressional districts located in various states of the United States. An example of the font is in the headline to this column. Each letter is an actual congressional district somewhere in the United States.

The full alphabet of districts that form letters is fascinating – not because of the beauty of the font, which readers can see is hard to read, but due to the fact that it is confounding that U.S. congressional districts actually look like the letter B or Z or I or X and so on.

In fact, the website where the font is available for public download is called UglyGerry.com to call attention to the extreme cases of gerrymandering in the United States. As the name implies, the site’s purpose isn’t to make the font a popular choice for communication, but to call attention to the ugly issue of gerrymandering, which is too pervasive in the United States.

The very simple site displays each letter of the alphabet created out of gerrymandered districts with a label listing where each letter district is located. It has just one message: Contact elected officials to do something so this practice can end. The font is even available for download to use in a message.

Changing the minds of partisan incumbents isn’t likely, but maybe if they get enough notes written in that ugly font, they will reconsider.

Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating voting districts to favor the party in power by creating oddly-shaped districts to consolidate voters into particular districts rather than laying out districts along more logical lines. The issue is a concern because districts will be redrawn in 2021 after the 2020 census and the 2020 election.

None of the letters of gerrymandered districts are from Minnesota. That’s because various analyses of Minnesota’s districts show there is relatively little gerrymandering in the state.

In Minnesota, like many other states, redistricting every 10 years is in the hands of the state Legislature. However, unlike most other states, Minnesota’s state Legislature is often split between the DFL and Republican parties when redistricting is due, therefore often leaving the issue to the nonpartisan federal courts after failing to reach a compromise in the Legislature. The court did a fair job of drawing lines for state and federal districts after the last census.

A concern among many people is what happens if that split in Minnesota doesn’t continue. What happens if one party takes control of the Senate and House after the 2020 election? Could Minnesota’s new districts some day look more like those in Wisconsin or Maryland?

In Wisconsin three federal judges ruled in 2017 that state assembly districts were unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans. However, since then the Supreme Court voted to decline placing limits on partisan gerrymandering, not because it thinks gerrymandering is proper, but because a slim majority decided that ruling on a political question such as this is beyond the reach of the federal courts.

It isn’t just Republican incumbents who are consolidating their power. Maryland, controlled by Democrats, also has districts that many people feel are gerrymandered to favor Democrats. This case was also thrown back to the state after the Supreme Court decision, but the Democratic governor is pushing to set up an independent commission, such as what exists in 10 other states, to redraw lines in the future.

During the last Minnesota legislative session, a bill (House File 1605) was introduced to put redistricting in the hands of citizens, not incumbents. The bill got through the House, but never made it to the Senate. The bill calls for an independent citizens’ commission with nine public members selected in an open process that is guided by established rules to ensure fairness and transparency.

A renewed push for this bill should be made in the next legislative session because if the 2020 election turns Minnesota more blue or red, there is the danger that the state will become even more blue or red in the future if incumbents draw lines to favor their party rather than the people of Minnesota, affecting the outcomes of future elections.

There is also a push at the national level led by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee with oversight over federal elections, who introduced legislation to help end partisan gerrymandering and reform the nation's patchwork redistricting process.  The Redistricting Reform Act would require states to establish independent, bipartisan redistricting commissions to draw fair statewide district maps after each census.

The legislation would require each state to: set up an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission; establish eligibility standards to prevent conflicts of interest and to ensure members aren’t lobbyists, political donors or party operatives; require the criteria for a redistricting plan complies with established requirements and also be geographically contiguous and compact with boundaries that minimize the division of communities of interest; and make the commission provide ample notice and opportunity for the public to provide input.

Klobuchar said partisan gerrymandering “undermines the principles of our democracy and puts political parties before people.”

Common Cause, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy, supports both the Minnesota and federal proposed legislation.

“Power-hungry politicians frequently use hyper-partisan gerrymandering to silence the voices of Americans in our democracy, and allowing self-interested politicians to cherry-pick their voters is like allowing foxes to guard a hen house,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for Common Cause.

Most people would agree that our political districts should look like basic, common shapes, not letters of the alphabet. It shouldn’t take an ugly font to get that message across to politicians.