In 2017, a trial court ordered North Carolina legislators to create new congressional voting maps because they deemed Republican legislators in violation of the Constitution for gerrymandering. The trial court stated that the Republican’s drawing of the districts would make it difficult for Democratic candidates to win their races. The decision went to the Supreme Court and on January 18th the court decided to put the case on hold until the justices could decide on other gerrymandering cases before them. This ruling means that because the case will not be resolved until much later, a new map won’t be created. This significantly increases the odds that the current boundaries, which favor Republicans, will be used in the November elections. I argue that this form of partisan gerrymandering is ultimately causing American democracy to backslide in several ways.
The term gerrymandering can be first looked at. Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts’s state governor, approved his state’s redistricting which favored his party in the 1800’s. The result of his district’s reshaping was the outline of a salamander. Thus the term gerry-mander was popularized. Since this time, gerrymandering has been prominent across the nation and the problems associated with it have been increasingly acknowledged.
Partisan gerrymandering is defined as the process of manipulating the boundaries of districts of a state in a way that makes candidates from a certain party more favorable to win. Fortune Magazine provides definitional examples of this stating that gerrymandering can change the district-lines in such a way to cluster party opposition votes in a certain district. Concentrating votes impact the way they are counted allowing them to influence very few seats, ultimately favoring the other party.
Gerrymandering is important in the context of democratic erosion. It is included as a method in which a party or administration can gain more elected supporters in order to pass their own agenda in such a way that may potentially erode democracy. In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt comment on how an administration can change the rules of the game in order gain political control. Some of these methods mentioned are in regards to altering the rules by changing the way people vote or how their votes are counted. Gerrymandering constitutes as a way Levitsky and Ziblatt say administrations can change the rules of the game in their favor.
Similarly, gerrymandering qualifies as an aspect of electoral law, which political scientist Ozan Varole says is a form of stealth authoritarianism and can erode democracy. Electoral laws, as defined by Varole, are rules on how an election can run. By changing the size and shape of congressional districts, gerrymandering offers a way in which a party can gain an advantage through how the votes are counted. This, as Varole notes, leads to a less democratic state. It is an example of a party acting through authoritarian means by changing the way votes are counted in order to gain political advantage.
Gerrymandering, furthermore, hurts voters themselves as Liz Kennedy and colleagues of AmericanProgress.org explain. Voters are unable to elect whom they want because their votes are counted differently according to the skewed district lines. Kirby and colleagues state, “When politicians are guaranteed to win because gerrymandering effectively precluded competitive elections, it diminishes responsiveness, accountability, and the potential for fair representation of their constituents.” They reason that gerrymandering can in turn harm democracy.
Additionally, gerrymandering can actually skew representation. For example, in the 2012 Pennsylvania election, 50% of House votes went to democrats, however Republicans actually earned 75% of seats. Similar situations happened in North Carolina, Michigan, and Maryland. When citizens’ votes do not represent how they voted, democracy backslides. By misrepresenting votes, policy may be affected as well. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, gerrymandering “creates an echo chamber in which candidate and elected officials are responsible only to people of like demography and ideology, rather than to a broad base of voters” (2015). This allows room for elected officials to pass legislation that goes against the desires of their constituents, furthermore eroding democracy.
Some may justify gerrymandering and biased maps through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They argue that the act requires map drawers to concentrate African-American votes into majority-minority districts with certain requirements. However, this can actually harm votes in surrounding districts. By packing black votes in certain districts, the white vote may be overwhelmingly enhanced in surrounding districts. This could ultimately skew and minimize the influence of voting in adjacent districts. The Supreme Court, acknowledging this, has now been carefully reviewing cases to determine how race should be considered when drawing districts.
In this example, the Supreme Courts decision regarding North Carolina may allow Republican candidates a better opportunity to win seats for this year’s midterm election. This form of partisan gerrymandering is ultimately causing American democracy to backslide. Gerrymandering allows parties to change the rules of the game enabling them political control. It uses electoral laws to change the way votes are counted, which may be deemed as a form of stealth authoritarianism. It also prevents voters from electing whom they want to vote for as mentioned above. Because of this, elected officials can pass legislation that goes against the desires of their constituents. These examples are ways in which democracy can backslide due to the outcomes of gerrymandering.