With the victory of Utah’s Proposition 4, 50.3 percent for and 49.7 percent against, American democracy took a small step forward. But the narrow victory raises a surprising and uncomfortable question: Why was the vote even close?
Gerrymandering is the antithesis of representative democracy upon which our nation is built. It allows politicians to pick their voters, rather than voters picking their politicians; in effect, it disenfranchises many voters. Why would almost half of Utah vote against Proposition 4 and for gerrymandering?
In 2010, Californians voted 61 percent to 39 percent to wrest federal redistricting from the hands of state Democratic lawmakers, thereby creating the first independent redistricting commission in America. It was the kind of landslide I was expecting to see in our election. Why were we different? Are Californians better educated? More civic-minded? Less partisan? Or some combination of all three?
The best way to determine what happened would have been an exit poll, but this was not done in either California or Utah. So, I modeled how I expected voters of all political persuasions would vote in each state. The results were surprising and thought-provoking.
In 2018, Utah registered voters were categorized as 13 percent Democrat, 48 percent Republican (3.7 times as many Republicans as Democrats), 35 percent independent, and 4 percent other. In considering how the typical voter might vote, I predicted that the typical besieged Democrat would feel that the drawing of districts was rigged and unfair, and 90 percent of the time would vote for Prop 4. Educated Republicans would also understand the essential unfairness of the drawing, but would behave very differently. Only 20 percent would vote with their conscience for Prop 4, while 80 percent would vote against it, because selfishness rules during times of tribal tensions, trumping, if you will, more dispassionate and principled action. Independents (a mixed bag of reasonable moderates) and “other” voters I predicted would vote for Proposition 4 75 percent of the time.
When I plugged these four categories of Utah registered voters together with my estimates of how each of these categories would vote in my Excel spreadsheet, it calculated that 50.6 percent of voters would support Proposition 4. Remarkably, that was almost exactly how it turned out.
When I applied the same modeling method, only minimally tweaked, to California’s 2010 election, the prediction was also uncannily accurate. In this case, the besieged minority-party Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the independent redistricting commission, while majority-party Democrats voted overwhelmingly against the commission. The difference in outcomes between Utah in 2018 and California in 2010 was different electorates. In 2010, California registered voters were 44 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican (1.4 times as many Democrats as Republicans), 20 percent independent, 5 percent other.
My primary conclusion from this exercise was that majority-party voters, when considering gerrymandering, predominantly vote to secure their dominance, throwing “fairness,” principled thinking and consideration for the voting rights of their fellow citizens out the window. While this analysis passes my smell test, it is worth remembering that the classes of voters may have voted differently than I hypothesized.
That being said, in states that can challenge gerrymandering through a ballot initiative and have a high proportion of majority-party voters, I worry that these voters will suppress the voice of minority-party voters. This outcome, which Utah only narrowly avoided, is against the broader interests of American democracy.
If this assessment is true, it is in the broader interests of American democracy to require all states to have independent redistricting commissions. Interestingly, in 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., sponsored HR1102, the Redistricting Reform Act, which proposed just such a solution. Unfortunately, this legislation got buried in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.
Fortunately, in the 2018 midterm elections, in other states with more balanced electorates, American democracy marched forward, as citizens voted overwhelmingly for independent redistricting commissions in Colorado (71 percent for and 29 percent against) and Michigan (61 percent for and 39 percent against). In Missouri and Ohio, citizens also made partisan redistricting more difficult.
Going forward, we must remain alert to Utah politicians’ desire to rig the electoral game and insulate themselves from the will of the people. It is not a matter of if they will try to do this, but rather, what means they will use, despite protestations to the contrary. Citizens beware.
Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.