Redistricting reform isn’t going to save us

For anyone who cares about our floundering democracy, last Month’s decision by the Supreme Court in Rucho vs. Common Cause allowing states to continue gerrymandering at will was a major blow. The case at hand centered around abuse by a Republican state legislature in North Carolina, but both parties consistently subvert democracy when they draw legislative districts every ten years. It just depends which party runs that particular state — they’re equally corrupt.

Given that the winner of the vast majority of elected offices are determined in the primary — Mayor, City Council, State Senate, State Assembly, US House, and often Governor and US Senate — allowing gerrymandering means letting small swaths of primary voters to decide who wins each election and what policies they then pursue. Even in 2018, one of the most political years in recent memory, turnout nationally in primaries was just 19.8%, meaning four out of five voters still didn’t show up (and that was a 50% increase over normal primary turnout). Put those two things together and you get Alabama banning abortion. You get New York City chasing away Amazon’s 25,000 jobs. You get policies designed for the extremes because the extremes are the only ones who bother to vote in primaries. 

The Court’s decision means that redistricting reform isn’t going to save us. But there is another way. We get extreme elected officials and extreme policies because policy outputs reflect political inputs. Say you’re a Republican congressman from Florida, your district is gerrymandered and primary turnout is typically 12%. You may know that an assault weapons ban isn’t a bad idea. You may think it doesn’t make sense to let people walk around your district with AK47s. But if NRA members make up half the 12% who actually vote in your primary, voting for an assault weapons ban is akin to conceding the next election. A handful of politicians are occasionally noble enough to do that but around 99% of them aren’t. But what if turnout in their primary were 60%? Then the NRA’s vote share would fall from half to a tenth. The politics flip. Since most people want an assault weapons ban, voting against it would mean conceding the next election. It’s no different when we see Democratic legislators opposing charter schools and higher standards at the behest of teachers unions. The outputs reflect the inputs, every single time.

But people don’t vote consistently, so how do we get to 60% primary turnout? Change the game. Rather than sticking to an antiquated electoral system created 250 years ago for an agrarian economy, embrace the tool almost all of us carry in our pockets today: smartphones. If all voting took were pulling out your phone, verifying your identity and pressing a few buttons, people would vote (I saw this firsthand when we made ridesharing legal for Uber by mobilizing millions of our customers to advocate for us over their phones). 

But what about hacking? The system we use today is extremely vulnerable. Paper ballots only led to the Bush-Gore disaster in 2000. There’s a better way.

Voting over the blockchain has now been used by the state of West Virginia and the city of Denver. Utah County became the third jurisdiction to embrace the new approach this month (my foundation, Tusk Philanthropies, has funded these new elections and worked to expand mobile voting nationally). When you cast a vote over a distributed ledger like the blockchain, your vote is stored on multiple machines. To change your vote, a hacker would have to change it on every single machine (often tens of thousands). Once the vote is cast over the blockchain, the local election office prints out a paper copy and sends you a pdf so you can make sure your vote was what you meant to do. Voters establish their identity through facial recognition and biometric scans, providing far more certainty than any system used today. In other words, blockchain offers the chance to make our votes dramatically safer and make turnout (which is what really matters), exponentially higher.

In a perfect world, every legislative district would be drawn fairly. The primary wouldn’t be the only election that matters. But our current political reality is far from perfect and the Supreme Court just ensured that any efforts to stop gerrymandering will now fall flat on their face. Radically increasing turnout solves the same problem. It’s safe. It’s fully within our grasp. It’s already happening in cities, states and counties across the nation. And it’s the only way to put power back into the hands of regular people. 

Unless we want to keep living in a world where 12% of voters decide every policy for all of us, we have to try something new. And with the Court’s decision last week, it’s our only way forward.

Bradley Tusk