NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — From Nashville celebrities to moms and dads, as well as schoolchildren, we've heard the pleas for Tennessee lawmakers to do something about gun violence following The Covenant School shooting.
So why does it seem those lawmakers aren't really listening?
The heart of the problem, our investigation discovered, is how our elections, in the words of one prominent Republican, are "rigged." Lawmakers draw district lines to increase their party's chances of winning elections — a process known as "gerrymandering."
"All you have to do is worry about winning the primary. You don't have to worry about winning a general election challenge," said longtime Tennessee Republican Zack Wamp.
"What does that do? It means you can hide in the bosom of your party, raise money for the party, cheerlead for the party, suck up to the party leadership, and you get to stay in office."
The first day of the 2023 legislative session back in January was a time of excitement and of hope.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked House Speaker Cameron Sexton, "When you look at the new House, do you think that reflects Tennesseans?"
"I think it does," Sexton said.
"The voters are the ones who are making Tennessee red, are the ones who are turning Tennessee Republicans into office."
But, in less than three months, the House would face protests calling for tighter gun laws following the Covenant shooting, a protest on the House floor and a vote to expel the so-called Tennessee Three.
All of those events raised questions about how well Tennessee's Republican supermajority truly represents the majority of Tennesseans.
"What is disorderly is a body that has used voter suppression and rigged maps to take control of our state," one of the Tennessee Three, Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, argued during his expulsion hearing.
Zach Wamp, the Republican who served eight terms in Congress and ran for governor, said gerrymandering does create districts that may not be in sync with voters.
"On the general rule, no, all across the country, these districts do not represent the makeup of the constituency, of the people. Tennessee is another example of it," Wamp told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Wamp co-chairs Issue One, a group that champions reforms to fix our broken political system, including concerns over gerrymandering.
"It is a way to rig the election," he acknowledged.
When Wamp looks at the Tennessee General Assembly, he also sees members of his own party who have been able to solidify their grip on power by drawing district lines to their advantage.
"The easiest way to win in elections," Wamp explained, "is if you have the pen in your hand and you get to draw the lines that you are running in, basically to choose your own voters. If you can do that, that's the easiest way to win."
In fact, one of the Tennessee Three, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, had become such a pain in the side of Sexton and House Republicans that last year they redrew the lines of her district so she no longer lived in the district she had represented.
"This is what the entire map that the Republicans drew did: we're going to let our elected officials choose their voters, instead of allowing the voters to choose who they want to represent them," Johnson said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "And you reacted by?"
"I moved back into my district," Johnson said with a hearty laugh.
The Knoxville Democrat was re-elected.
A lot of people think of Tennessee as a solid red Republican state.
But, if you look at the last three presidential elections, Republicans tend to get about 60 percent of the vote, Democrats still get 40 percent."
In the Tennessee House of Representatives, Republicans have drawn the lines so they have 76% of the seats, giving them the power to shut off all debate.
And, in the state Senate, it's even worse. Republicans control 82% of the seats."
Then, there's the battle for Tennessee's nine seats in the U.S. House.
Statewide, the Republican candidates got 65 percent of the votes, Democrats 35 percent.
But because of gerrymandering, eight out of nine congressional districts — or 89% — went to Republicans.
Republicans got there by dividing Democratic Nashville among three Republican districts.
"Truth is not partisan. The truth transcends and the truth is gerrymandering is not right. It's actually now gotten goofy," Wamp said.
That brings us back to the gun protests.
According to the Vanderbilt Poll:
- Tennesseans overwhelmingly favor universal background checks for anyone who buys a gun (regardless of whether it's from a gun store or a private individual).
- They also support red-flag laws to take firearms out of the hands of mentally unstable people.
- And they back safe-storage laws to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals.
But Tennessee's Republican supermajority, most who don't have to worry about winning general elections, have refused to consider any of those solutions.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted to Wamp, "Some of your Republican friends say, well, that's the way the game is played."
"Yes, it's easy to say that," he answered, "but honestly if you're honest about it, no, that's because it's convenient to say that. It's really not best for the people."
Wamp thinks it would be better if lawmakers would let someone else draw the district lines.
"The solution, Phil, is nonpartisan commissions at the state level should redraw these lines, not the political parties. And that's not popular in my party because I'm from Tennessee, and our party is a majority party so it benefits our party to keep it the way it is."
And just as Wamp predicted, House Speaker Cameron Sexton was quick to dismiss the suggestion.
"Even the states who have a board who redistrict, it's still political and they still go to court. So there is no perfect way," he insisted.
"I get it, and I very much respect Cameron Sexton, but I disagree with him on this."
With Tennesseans increasingly feeling that their legislature doesn't represent them, Wamp says failure to address this core issue will only increase the public sense that the legislature is out of touch with them and their lives.
"I guarantee you, if all the framers came out of the grave — the framers of the U.S. Constitution — and looked at this today, they would go, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, you should never have done that, y'all."
This is also an issue in some states controlled by Democrats.
In eight states, citizen initiatives have resulted in the creation of nonpartisan commissions to redraw district lines.
Another option that Zach Wamp has supported for almost 20 years is federal legislation to require it.
But, with our divided government in Washington, that doesn't appear to be in the cards at the moment.
SPECIAL SECTION: Revealed
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