Gerrymandering, closed primaries, and sore loser laws, long-accepted practices in American politics that restrict election competition, have new and dangerous implications at a time when our politics are threatened by an authoritarian movement. Such practices now make it possible for Republicans to legally seize and control much of the nation’s political power, as their actions indicate is their intention. As illustrated by the efforts of Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, this is something that authoritarians on the right have understood for years. They have followed a long-term strategy and are now in a position to dictate election rules and outcomes in most states.
Yet, Democrats and democratically-principled Republicans are the ones who created the opportunity for this crisis to emerge.
Election competitiveness remains low, and in 2020 was below average for even year elections since 2010. According to Ballotpedia, roughly 35% of state legislative districts in 2020 saw no competition between the two major parties — in other words, there was not both a Republican and Democratic candidate running. As partisan competition has diminished, elected officials have had less incentive to balance competing constituent needs or find compromise solutions, allowing more extreme views to hold sway.
In a 2017 paper for the Harvard Business School, Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America, former Gehl Foods CEO and policy adviser Katherine M. Gehl and business expert Michael E. Porter contend, “The problem is not Democrats or Republicans…. The problem is not the existence of parties, per se, or that there are two major parties. The real problem is the nature of political competition that the current duopoly has created, their failure to deliver solutions that work, and the artificial barriers that are preventing new competition that might better serve the public interest.”
Gehl and Porter concluded that, despite the good intentions of individual politicians, the two dominant parties have rigged the system through gerrymandered districts that virtually guarantee victory to one party, and through caucuses, primaries, and other ballot access rules that have further reduced the influence of independent voters. As of July 2021, more than 30 million voters had registered as independent or nonpartisan in the 31 US states and territories that permit voters to indicate partisan affiliation, yet both parties have continued to support partisan rules that negate the independent vote.
Back in 2011, two senior fellows at Brookings Institute, Thomas Mann and William Galston, reached a similar conclusion. They wrote that redistricting’s biggest impact was the opportunity it gave to extreme candidates on the left and the right, who are most capable of getting their base of supporters out to vote.
“Considered in tandem with low-turnout primaries, gerrymandering further diminishes the influence of moderates”, they concluded.