Harvard Law School
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
November 8, 2017

Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here this morning with so many dedicated policy experts, legal scholars, practitioners, students, and activists. This is an exciting and challenging time for redistricting reform. I hope that today’s conference offers food for thought and further impetus for action as you all work on redistricting reform in your own ways.

Let me begin by acknowledging the people who have made this conference possible. I am grateful to Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School for engaging the law school in this conference and hosting us here. I am grateful as well to my colleagues at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation who organized this gathering—Archon Fung, Melissa D’Anello, Dan Harsha, Tim Glynn-Burke, Maureen Griffin, Teresa Acuña, and especially the maestro of the conference, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport. I also want to thank the organizations that have co-sponsored this conference: the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and the Institute of Politics and Electoral Politics Professional Interest Council at the Kennedy School. And I am grateful to all of the panelists, presenters, and everyone else who is here for your contributions to this conference.

I would like to take just a few minutes to offer my thoughts about how redistricting reform fits into the work of the Kennedy School. The mission of the School is to solve public problems by improving public policy and leadership. We do this by weaving together research, teaching, and direct interaction with policymakers and public leaders. This combination of research and engagement with the world gives us both a depth of insight and the leverage to achieve change. We apply this approach across a wide array of public problems, in this country and around the world.

In my view, there is no greater public problem in the United States today than the lack of confidence in our political and economic system shown by so many Americans. Many millions of people are disappointed with their elected leaders, frustrated about economic changes that help others but hurt them, and angry at people they view as elite for being out of touch and self-serving. These Americans’ lack of trust in our political and economic order is damaging our norms and institutions, weakening our leadership in the world, and hindering our ability to work together to address many other issues.

Therefore, I think the most important priority in the country is to restore public confidence in our system. The Kennedy School is working hard on both the political and economic aspects of this challenge. Under the banner of “Making Democracy Work,” the faculty, staff, students, and fellows at the School are engaged in a terrific collection of activities to understand and improve the functioning of democracy in the United States and elsewhere in the world. I think of these activities as falling into four broad categories: the electoral process, the media and politics, the process of governance, and political views and movements.

This conference is addressing the first of these categories—the electoral process. The right to vote is at the heart of democracy. This right is devalued if our votes cease to matter. It is not enough to have the vote, and it is not enough to count votes. Our votes must count—they must matter for the outcome. Fair districting is essential to making votes matter. If districts are gerrymandered—to achieve racial discrimination, incumbent protection, partisan domination, or other purposes—people’s votes do not count and do not matter in the way that they must to ensure a strong democracy. Because, if votes do not matter, people become justifiably disillusioned with the people and policies that win elections and with the political system as a whole. By studying gerrymandering and working to correct it, you are helping to make people’s votes matter, to restore public confidence in our political system, to make our democracy work.

As you know, this moment in our history is an especially important moment for this effort. We await the Supreme Court’s ruling about the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. That ruling will have significant consequences for redistricting and the electoral landscape. But regardless of the ruling, it is important for all of us—scholars, practitioners, activists, and citizens—to engage in this issue and to fight for a robust American democracy.

As a citizen, I am grateful to all of you for leading the way. You are tackling a complex and multifaceted set of issues, so this conference covers a broad swath of territory—a historical overview of gerrymandering, the intersection of race and redistricting, the consequences of the 2020 census, and the landscape of possible reforms. I expect that you will have informed and pointed exchanges of views, and that is what we are aiming for. You have an exciting and thought-provoking day ahead of you. I hope that you thoroughly enjoy the sessions and that you come away with new ideas and perspectives to inform your work on behalf of our democracy. Thank you.