Full Participation: Making Every Voice Count

For former US Attorney General Eric Holder, gerrymandering is at the root of many of the most prominent political debates unfolding across the country today.

A fairer voting system, Holder believes, wouldn’t tilt the balance towards one political party, but would level the playing field for both voters and political parties.

Reforming the way that legislative lines are drawn has been an increasingly central part of Holder’s work since leaving public office in 2015. Holder, speaking at the JFK Jr Forum at HKS on April 30th to deliver the Edwin Godkin Lecture, spoke forcefully about the need reform legislative redistricting. “If you want to have a fair voting system that has the ability to shape the direction of the country, it seems to me that we should have a redistricting effort done in 2021 that makes the battle between conservative, Republican ideas, Democratic, progressive ideas, and let's see who wins,” intoned the former Attorney General.

On Gerrymandering

“A bedrock principle of democracy is that the citizens should pick their representatives, not vice versa.”

Academic Dean Archon Fung

Joining Holder onstage was Archon Fung, HKS Academic Dean and Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government who moderated a wide ranging discussion on voter participation and assessing the strength of our democratic institutions in the US today. When pressed by Fung on whether Democrats should exact maximum partisan political advantage when they control the line drawing process, Holder argued that Democrats should resist the temptation to gerrymander in their favor. “That would be inconsistent with who I hope I am and what my work has stood for. This is not an attempt to gerrymander on behalf of Democrats.”

Fung posed the question of who ultimately should be entrusted to draw legislative maps in redistricting process not driven by partisan outcomes. “I think the ideal mechanism is what you see in California, Arizona,” said Holder, referring to California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission (winner of the 2017 Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government) and the Arizona Redistricting Commission, respectively. Voters in both states created panels that removed the responsibility for redistricting from the hands of state legislators and entrusted the decennial mapmaking process with independent commissions.

Assessing the current state of redistricting in much of the US, Holder observed that “the reality now is that we have politicians picking their voters as opposed to citizens choosing who their representatives are going to be.” Fung heartily agreed, “A bedrock principle of democracy [is] that the citizens should pick their representatives, not vice versa.”