We Need a Reckoning for a Rigged Democracy

Voters should choose their elected representatives, not the other way around.

by Jonathan Butler

July 30, 2019

A photo showing a crowd of people protesting at night outside of the US Supreme court. In the foreground, there is a person holding a sign that reads “RESIST.”

A photo showing a crowd of people protesting at night outside of the US Supreme court. In the foreground, there is a person holding a sign that reads “RESIST.”

© Amanda J. Mason / Greenpeace

Looking at history we know our government has never served all people, especially indigenous people, Black people, people of color, and other marginalized communities. Too often they have been strategically excluded from the democratic system, their voices silenced, and the values of their lives not fully accounted for. What we’re seeing in the Trump era is a doubling down of the systems and structures that benefit few at the expense of many. We need not look any further than the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on gerrymandering and the citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

Gerrymandering is often described as the intentional manipulation of voting districts to discriminate against a group of people because of their political views or ethnic background. In the gerrymandering case, the Supreme Court refused to intervene on such issues of partisan redistricting, citing a desire to not expand the reach of the judicial branch into political matters. In the case of the citizenship question on the census, SCOTUS ruled against including a question about citizenship on the census, referring it back to the lower courts. At the surface, the decision on the census could be interpreted as a win for democracy while the gerrymandering case as a loss but ultimately, when you take a closer look, the people directly impacted didn’t gain any progress through these decisions. 

At the heart of both of these cases, marginalized communities remain in the cross-hairs of a political system that continues to be rigged against them. Many of the same communities targeted by gerrymandering are the most impacted by climate change and pollution-related health problems such as asthma. Most often communities of color. What’s worse, the SCOTUS decision will make it harder to address gerrymandering in courts. In the case of the census citizenship question, the fear-mongering stirred up by Trump’s actions alone will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on everyone’s willingness to participate, be appropriately represented, and get the resources they need to thrive. 

In the face of disaster, a Michigan independent citizens commission was established through sheer grassroots initiative, leading to the successful 2018 Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative. This initiative, passed by 61% of Michigan voters, put the power to draw election maps and be properly represented back into the hands of the people. But Michigan is not alone in this fight against corruption. States like Colorado, Missouri, and Utah, are charging forward with independent redistricting commissions led by citizens instead of legislators that will be in charge of drawing new electoral maps after the 2020 Census. These commissions and other similar efforts, have the potential to give directly impacted communities a fighting chance to beat one form of corporate capture and partisan rigging of our political and election system.

The gerrymandering and census questions are inherently connected. Trump vowed to do anything in his power to gather citizenship information, with or without the Census 2020. That is not a surprise, the census results determine how political districts are drawn. If immigrant communities are less likely to respond if the citizenship question is included, their voice won’t be counted. Many non-citizens are afraid to share their citizenship data with an openly hostile government. If they don’t respond to the census in large numbers, districts might be redrawn in ways that eliminate their political power even further.

Regardless of where you stand, the truth remains, voters should choose their elected representatives — not the other way around. Just as rising sea levels are nature’s response to excess pollution, the groundswell of popular resistance is the inevitable and unstoppable response to political corruption, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and excessive corporate political influence. Our elected officials must be climate champions and defenders of democracy. They must put in place robust, comprehensive legislative reforms to ensure that people are at the center of our democracy and that urgent action is taken to protect our fragile climate.

Enough is enough. 

By Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler is the Democracy Campaigner for the Democracy, Peace, and Justice team at Greenpeace USA. He works on a range of issues from climate justice and the right to dissent, to money in politics and voting rights in order to empower people to protect our planet.

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