It’s no bold claim to say that the United States is a democracy. Our Constitution, one of the earliest iterations of representative government and the model for hundreds more worldwide, formalized scores of democratic norms: regular elections, voting rights, civil liberties around speech and religion, and much more. The country has seen no serious, sustained challenge to democracy as a form of government in its 200+ year history, indicating that not only has democracy taken root, but it also has consolidated.
However, this picture is only so rosy when viewed from a distance. On a more microscopic level there are elements of American policies and norms that can be seen as undemocratic: barriers to voting, the outsized influence of wealthy donors in politics, and (most importantly for this article) gerrymandering come to mind. So, is it possible that there can be a situation where democracy seems present and consolidated, yet undemocratic characteristics persist?
Short answer: yes. Long(er) answer: to be a useful term, democracy, even in a more maximalist conceptualization, has to be applicable in beyond just an idealized state. Elements that might be undemocratic, and could in another country be part of an authoritarian “Frankenstate,” are better seen as flaws in an otherwise mostly democratic system. Fixing these elements isn’t an act of consolidation, since democracy is already entrenched here; it is however, an act of what can be thought of as democratic advancement: even in societies like the United States which are seen as having some of the strongest forms of democracy, the system can always be made more representative, responsive and free (in other words, more democratic).
Here’s where gerrymandering comes in. In the US since its founding, electoral districts for Congress and state legislatures are redrawn with each new census to account for changes in population. There are different ways states do this, but one way to exploit the system is through what’s known as gerrymandering – manipulating the boundaries of the districts to favor one group of people. Racial gerrymandering was outlawed in the Supreme Court case Bush v. Vera, but gerrymandering along partisan lines is still legal today, and is widely abused.
Under partisan gerrymandering, the party that controls the legislature at the time of redistricting has outsized power to draw district lines that favor their own party. For example, an AP analysis found that up to 22 of the seats Republicans hold in the House of Representatives are held as a result of gerrymandering, thanks largely to the widespread control Republicans have of state legislatures. At a basic level, the practice seems undemocratic: elected officials selecting who their voters are to make it easier to win re-election undermines the competitiveness of elections, and granting the ruling party more power to increase their majority exacerbates partisanship and extremism.
Or so it seems, but these are not the real problems of gerrymandering as it relates to democracy. Professor Sheila Kennedy of IUPUI reviewed the literature on gerrymandering, and found scant research concluding that gerrymandering does measurable harm to competitiveness and partisanship – two problems that many people believe it causes.
Despite this, gerrymandering is still a real issue for democracy, because democracy is about more than just public policy. Representation and legitimacy are two components of democracy that have a lot to do with how people feel. In the case of gerrymandering, many people feel that it makes the political system unfair. Especially in a country like the US where the formal institutions of democracy have been around for a long time, a primary mode of democratic advancement can come from people seeing the government as more democratic, a factor which is influenced by more than just the findings of academic policy analysis. This is a thicker conception of democracy than one that cares mostly about elections, and one that the subtle impacts of gerrymandering has an effect on.
One case happening now that could bolster American democracy is Gill v. Whitford. The case, for which the Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments, deals involves an allegedly unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by the Wisconsin state legislature. A panel of federal judges struck down the district map on the grounds that it was designed to heavily favor Republicans, and produced unnaturally disparate political benefits for them.
Without commenting on the existing jurisprudence and precedents, it will be better for American democracy if Gill is decided in favor of those alleging the map is unconstitutional. For Democratic voters in Wisconsin whose efforts to elect candidates they preferred were thwarted by Republicans’ political calculus and precise map-drawing technology, a ruling in favor of making districts more balanced has the effect of increasing the power of their voices. A country with the US’s history can’t feign ignorance and say that gerrymandering is a historical fact, not a stain on democracy. There are mechanisms available – like the efficiency gap or the mean-median test – that can be used to identify when maps are unfair, and simple enough solutions to draw them more fairly – like by using independent redistricting commissions.
Whether through a decision in Gill or other means, ending partisan gerrymandering would be a boon for American democracy. It would give people more reason to believe that their participation in government matters, and would ward off the claims of a “rigged system” that populists and other undemocratic leaders prey on. Though ending the practice might have benefits that are more symbolic than substantive, those symbolic effects are important: if Republicans were to accept a Court decision declaring partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional, that would be a ruling regime accepting limits on its own power, a powerful statement that the potential for leadership change so fundamental for democracy is an established norm in America.
An end to the practice of partisan gerrymandering would un-entrench a system that has too-long stained American democracy, and would show that even consolidate democracies can always take steps to become more representative and legitimate.