On June 27, 2019, the US Supreme Court gave its ruling on two significant cases called Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause. The reason why I am linking these two Supreme Court cases together is that they share two similarities: they revolve around the issue of gerrymandering and they result in a 5-4 decision in favor of the appellants (Lamone and Rucho). In both Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering claims are not justiciable because they present a political question beyond the reach of the federal courts, thereby allowing the districts in Virginia (Lamone) and North Carolina (Rucho) to remain the way they are.
What is interesting to point out about these 5-4 decisions though is that, in each case, the majority opinions were held by judges who were appointed by Republican presidents while the minority opinions were held by judges who were appointed by Democratic presidents. While the Supreme Court justices are supposed to remain apolitical, this split division showcases that the issue of gerrymandering is a very politically polarizing issue between conservatives and liberals. I believe that all of these circumstances are indications that gerrymandering is motivated by extreme partisanship, which could therefore cause the erosion of American democracy.
While there are several ways to define this term, for the sake of this argument, party polarization is when sections of a population adopt increasingly dissimilar attitudes toward parties and party members. This causes people to endorse ideologically consistent stances across all issues and blindly love their own party while despising the other party. What this means today, especially during the Trump presidency, is that when the United States is consumed by partisan tribalism, voters and politicians will take actions that will ultimately favor the party they support, but not American democracy as a whole.
Under extreme partisan polarization, opposing parties adopt a sort of “win at all costs” type of mentality, which not only causes mutual toleration to crumble but may also encourage antisystem groups that reject democracy’s rules altogether. Therefore, with the November 2020 election coming up, both the Democratic and the Republican party are doing whatever it takes to win. While topics like court-packing and Voter ID laws are the most prevalent issues facing this election, I believe gerrymandering is an issue that is not being talked about as much but is just as dangerous.
The goal behind gerrymandering is to essentially draw the boundaries of legislative districts in a way that allows a party to win as many seats as possible because doing so will increase the chances of the party’s candidate winning a specific district. In other words, gerrymandering provides fertile grounds for stealth authoritarianism. While both parties have taken advantage of this method of tilting the political map in their favor, the maps that are the most rigged and tilted tend to be the ones controlled by the Republican party considering how well Republicans did in the 2010 midterm elections. In fact, according to a 2019 report made by the Center for American Progress, unfairly drawn congressional districts shifted, on average, 59 seats in the House of Representatives during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections.
This means that those 59 politicians won their elections not necessarily because they held a majority of support from the people in those states, but because the district lines were drawn in a way that favored the parties of those 59 politicians. This creates an unfair advantage for the party that drew these lines, and with both the Democratic and Republican party becoming even more politically divided than before, they will take advantage of gerrymandering even more if it means a potential win for either party. Free and fair elections are crucial aspects of democracies, and to allow a tactic like gerrymandering to continue existing, especially during the upcoming 2020 election, is both frightening and undemocratic.
Therefore, I believe that if the United States were to solve the issue of gerrymandering, then I propose that Congress pass a law that mandates all states to draw the boundaries of their legislative districts in a manner similar to that to how Iowa draws theirs. In 1980, the Iowa Legislature passed a law that initiated a nonpartisan redistricting process. According to this law, a nonpartisan staff of legislators is put in charge of drawing the legislative districts, and while doing so, no member of the staff can consider partisan factors or the effect on officeholders.
Iowa has stuck to this law since its passage in 1980, and since then, districts have been drawn to be as close to equal in population as possible, while respecting political subdivisions and maintaining a reasonably compact area. When examining the map of legislative districts of Iowa, the state is divided into four districts, each of which holds an equal number of citizens, thereby creating a fair election that does not favor either party. I believe that this is the solution to the issue of gerrymandering, and if Congress passed a law mandating that every state adopt a nonpartisan redistricting process similar to Iowa’s, we could not only get closer to having fair, unbiased elections, but also maintain a sense of integrity of American democracy.
Sources: Bycoffe, Aaron, et al. “Iowa – The Atlas Of Redistricting.” FiveThirtyEight, 25 Jan. 2018, projects.fivethirtyeight.com/redistricting-maps/iowa/.  Heltzel, Gordon, and Kristin Laurin. “Polarization in America: Two Possible Futures.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier Ltd., 6 May 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7201237/.  “Lamone v. Benisek.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/2018/18-726. Accessed 22 Oct. 2020.  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Broadway Books, 2019.  Obradovich, Kathie. “Iowa Can Cure One Form of Political Cancer: Gerrymandering.” Des Moines Register, The Des Moines Register, 5 July 2019, www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2019/07/05/gerrymandering-iowa-can-cure-form-political-cancer-supreme-court-politics-redistricting/1632520001/.  “Rucho v. Common Cause.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/2018/18-422. Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.  Tausanovitch, Alex. “The Impact of Partisan Gerrymandering.” Center for American Progress, 1 Oct. 2019, www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/news/2019/10/01/475166/impact-partisan-gerrymandering/.  Varol 100 Iowa L. Rev. 1673 (2015), Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review, 2015, ilr.law.uiowa.edu/print/volume-100-issue-4/stealth-authoritarianism/.  Wines, Michael. “What Is Gerrymandering? And How Does It Work?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 June 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/06/27/us/what-is-gerrymandering.html.
While I do agree with you that gerrymandering is motivated by extreme partisanship. I think your causal argument may be flawed as you state that gerrymandering is one of the many dimensions behind the erosion of American democracy. I think the problem you are citing is endogenous as it is very difficult to understand which came first or what is causing what. Meaning, is gerrymandering causing the polarization or did the polarization cause the gerrymandering.
I believe that in a healthy democracy, political organization attempt to maximize its voter output but they need to tread lightly when doing so. You do state in your argument that both parties have strategically formed congressional districts in their favor. Moreover, the maps that are the most tilted tend to be the ones controlled by the Republican party. This is when one may argue that the Republican Party has overstepped the current political norms in Washington and perhaps one of the many dimensions that starting the democracy’s decay.
Again, I do think that we have seen higher ideological polarization in the United States in the past few years. However, your argument may not consider the rapid ideological changes that can occur between and in administration as we have seen both in the Regan administration and Trump administration and therefore sometimes these voting areas may un-tilt themselves naturally in due course.
Hello Timmy, interesting blog post! I do agree that the issue of gerrymandering and district drawing should be more emphasised as it directly relates to the degree to which free and fair elections are taking place. Nonetheless, this idea of « independent/ nonpartisan legislators » having such a responsibility would still have to be monitored and verified for how « unbiased » they really are. I find it a little utopian to believe there is such a thing as unbiased people and I’m curious as to how you would account for bias.
I also share your concerns that the Supreme Court has now become a partisan institution. However, don’t you find it somewhat reassuring that the ideological leanings of the Supreme Court justices are somewhat balanced and not utterly disproportionately in favour of one ideology?
Also, while I am aware that the Supreme Court was founded in order to protect the rights of all and completely disregard public opinion, don’t you think the Supreme Court should somewhat take into account public opinion? I mean, is a country really democratic if its institutions don’t follow the will of the people? Wouldn’t you find it outrageous and completely unfair if the Supreme Court unanimously made a decision that 99% of the population strongly opposed?