While the United States advertises itself as a representative democracy, many voters question the degree to which the United States achieves the democratic ideals of this system. At the forefront of this question is the controversial issue of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts in a way which allows one party to unfairly dominate. In the United States, district redrawing occurs every ten years, meaning that the process is underway this year. The impact of gerrymandering has been clear, with a recent study by the Center for American Progress finding that over the 2012, 2014 and 2016 congressional elections an average of 59 seats were shifted by gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has been a challenging issue to address because it benefits both political parties, and without a systematic change it becomes irresistible tool to use for many elected leaders. It brings about a “fight fire with fire” mentality in politicians.
Gerrymandering is a significant peril to democracy and an issue which should be taken seriously. In an increasingly polarized political climate, it could lead to questions into the legitimacy of elected officials in power. Gerrymandering has the power to both erode public trust in electoral processes and significantly increase executive power.
Gerrymandering in North Carolina
The issue of Gerrymandering has been in national news recently with the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling that the proposed state government plan for the redrawing of districts is unconstitutional and violates the state constitution guarantees to free elections, speech and assembly.
The importance of this ruling cannot be understated. In a country in which legislators and courts have been historically inept at addressing the issue of gerrymandering, this ruling indicates that there is still potential for a future without gerrymandering.
While gerrymandering does not directly increase executive power, it can unjustly strengthen a governor’s ability to enact policy. By manipulating the districting of the state legislature governors can effectively eliminate a significant check on their power, filling the legislature with individuals of the same party. The power of the executive branch to draw legislative districts potentially allows the executive branch to have undue influence on the makeup of the legislative branch.
For example, in North Carolina, around 36% of voters are registered Democrats and around 30% of voters are registered Republicans. Even though a plurality of registered voters are Democrats, a large majority of the State House of Representatives is Republican with a 69-51 partisan breakdown. This trend is also reflected in the State Senate, in which Republicans own a 28-22 majority.
The strong majority held in both chambers by the Republican Party is in direct contrast to the partisan breakdown of the voters, indicating that the elections may not be as representative and fair as they outwardly appear. It is clear that gerrymandering could be one potential mechanism by which the will of the people is not represented in the United States.
In an ideal representative democracy, the proportion of the two major parties in the legislative branch would mostly mirror statewide vote counts. These two things are at odds in North Carolina.
Gerrymandering Around the Country
North Carolina isn’t the only state in which judicial cases have been brought forth arguing that the state executive branch unfairly represented one political party in the redistricting process. In Ohio, the Supreme Court shot down the original redistricting plan presented and gave the governor 30 days to present a new plan. Ongoing cases are also under review in Texas, Maryland and Illinois.
The most dangerous part of gerrymandering is that it is a federally legal process in the United States. The drawing of districts to protect the incumbent party can be challenged in state court (as seen in the case of North Carolina), but remains legal on the federal level. The Supreme Court has stated that it has no ability to rule on cases regarding gerrymandering.
Thus, the use of gerrymandering is a form of stealth authoritarianism, which is the use of existing political precedents to advance executive power. Gerrymandering is a tool which politicians can legally justify as a response to the changing partisan makeup of the state population – despite the fact that it has potential authoritarian effects.
As the United States becomes increasingly partisan it becomes imperative to maintain the integrity of elections both in appearance and in practice, making this issue all the more important in the coming future. The use of gerrymandering not only affects governmental checks and balances, but also the trust that people have in the government. As seen in the 2020 election, even misinformation regarding voting improprieties can lead to uprisings in the right political and societal context.
Gerrymandering is a present danger to the American system of representative democracy and one which should not be ignored. However, the recent court decisions which have shot down redistricting plans in Ohio and North Carolina bode well for the future of American democracy. If this trend continues it is possible that faith can be restored in the electoral process and one of the main contributors to democratic backsliding in the United States can be eliminated – or at least mitigated.