Listening to congressional Republicans today, Democrats’ democracy reform bills are “a brazen power grab” and “the single most dangerous piece of legislation pending in the United States Congress.” Yet, one of the most important reforms being advanced by Democrats today — the redistricting provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act — isn’t a Democratic idea at all but a Republican one.
The year was 1989. The next round of congressional redistricting wouldn’t be for another two years, but Republicans were already worried. With the Democratic Party in control of key state legislatures and governorships, Democrats would have free rein to gerrymander maps to guarantee themselves a comfortable majority in the House for the coming decade. For Republicans, that meant continuing to be consigned to the same perpetual minority they had been in since 1957 — even though they regularly won half the nationwide congressional vote and in many parts of the country were becoming increasingly competitive.
But President George H.W. Bush, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and other Republicans had a bold idea: pass federal legislation to make the map-drawing process fairer.
In June 1989, the Bush administration told reporters that it would push for passage of “legislation aimed at outlawing gerrymandering.” The core of the proposal would be “‘neutral criteria’ to be used in drawing the nation’s congressional districts after the 1990 census.” If states refused to follow these criteria when drawing districts, voters would have the ability to take states to court to force a redraw of maps.
To be sure, Republicans conceded that redistricting reforms faced an uphill fight in a Congress dominated by Democrats. But they strongly pushed back against Democratic accusations that the legislation was merely a GOP power grab. At a press conference in late June 1989, Bush told reporters that he was “outraged by a suggestion of that nature” and that he was “looking [at the matter] as objectively as I can.”
Sen. McConnell and congressional Republicans would go on to include redistricting reform in not one, but three separate democracy reform bills they would propose over the next two years. (In a reverse echo of the fights today, not a single Democrat would co-sponsor any of the bills.) Read more