Gerrymandering and the industry of politics

An unhealthy alliance that undermines accountability and harms our economy

Business leaders have long recognized that our economy depends on a well-educated work force, predictable regulatory frameworks, modern infrastructure and timely passage of a balanced state budget. None of these are possible with the current partisan gridlock promoted in large part by gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts. Intense competition and vitriol between the two political parties have created a system in which partisan success is more important than good government practices. Rather than finding common ground and balancing the interests of all citizens, the political parties have drifted to more ideological extremes.

Texas has one of the lowest rankings for competitive elections in the nation: 72 percent of the candidates who ran for state legislative offices in the 2016 general election either faced no competition or were running in such heavily gerrymandered districts that they were virtually guaranteed victory (and won by more than a 45 percent margin). This means that voters could not hold these elected officials accountable through the power of their vote, except in Republican and Democratic party primaries.

We all pay a steep economic price for a legislative system that has no accountability. Take for example Senate Bill 4, the anti-immigration bill that passed out of the Legislature this past session only to have key parts struck down by federal courts. The bill’s passage was partisan, with 93 Republicans voting in favor and 54 Democrats voting against. Most of the supporters, 70 percent, were from uncontested or heavily gerrymandered districts, including the bill’s author.

It might be a stretch to say that gerrymandering contributed to the passage of this legislation, but it is completely reasonable to say that Republicans were afraid to vote against the official party position, in part due to gerrymandering. When the Legislature uses partisan gerrymandering to maximize the number of “safe” seats, it moves the true competition from general elections to primaries, where compromise only occurs amongst the party’s base. Those elected officials knew that voting against SB 4 would threaten their chances of winning a primary.

But many were worried about what might happen if the legislation survived. If SB 4 had been fully enacted, the projected losses to the economy were estimated to be $223 million in state and local taxes and more than $5 billion in gross domestic product, according to a report from the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance.

There is no doubt that the business community here in Texas contributed significantly to the fight against the bathroom bill this past legislative session, and it is the business community in other states that is pushing for reform.

In North Carolina, where a version of the bathroom bill has ravaged the state’s economy, small business coalitions are fighting back by advocating for nonpartisan redistricting. In Ohio, a broad swath of the business community endorsed an amendment that created a bipartisan redistricting commission. In South Dakota, the farmers union recently drove an initiative for an independent commission. In California, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce was a key contributor to passage of amendments that created an independent redistricting commission for the state.

Business groups have realized that creating more competitive and fairly drawn political districts helps create a more collaborative civic climate that is good for business. It is time for Texas to do the same.

Stephanie Swanson

Founder, Honest Elections for Texans