Following the conclusion of the 2020 Census in the United States, all fifty states began the process of legislative redistricting. Redistricting is the mechanism through which the boundaries of state and federal legislative seats are drawn. While it sounds mundane, redistricting is hugely important in American politics – there is no federal requirement for lines to be drawn fairly, so partisan actors can manipulate districts for their own gain, opening the door to serious threats to American democracy.
In the U.S., this partisan manipulation is known as “gerrymandering.” Gerrymandering has a long history in American politics, but the practice has increased in scale and scope in recent decades. There are two broad ways to enact a gerrymander: by “packing” opposition voters into a small number of districts, or by “cracking” those voters into multiple districts to dilute their voting power. Both methods are designed to maximize the number of seats that are winnable for the party drawing the map.
The last two decades have seen some of the most effective gerrymanders in American history. This is largely the result of advances in computer technology that make precision gerrymandering easier, and rising polarization that incentivizes politicians to enact the harshest gerrymanders possible. Maximizing the number of seats that reliably vote for one party is now the priority for most politicians. Election experts predict that by the end of the current redistricting cycle, only 30-35 of the 435 U.S. House seats will be considered “highly competitive,” a staggeringly low number.
In addition to reducing competitiveness, gerrymandering also creates artificial legislative majorities. 53% of Wisconsin voters chose Democratic candidates in the 2018 election for the Wisconsin State Assembly, while just under 45% chose Republican candidates. Despite losing the popular vote by over 8 points, Republicans won 63 of the 99 seats, three shy of a supermajority. This severe disconnect between votes cast and seats won was the result of gerrymandering – Republicans controlled Wisconsin redistricting in 2011, and drew maps that heavily favored their party.
How favorable were those maps? In 2018, the tipping point district in the Wisconsin Assembly was District 29. The Republican candidate won District 29 by 12 percentage points. To win this tipping point district, and thus win a legislative majority, Democrats would have needed to improve their performance by 12 percent. In an election where Democrats already won the popular vote by 8 percent, to win a one seat majority, the Democratic Party needed a 20-point landslide in the popular vote.
An electoral playing field that heavily tilted can hardly be considered competitive. The Wisconsin Legislature, throughout the course of the 2010’s, was essentially a one-party body. Wisconsin is an extreme example, but it is certainly not unique. Of the 50 U.S. states, 33 empower their state legislature to handle redistricting, opening the door to partisan gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is also not confined to a single party – Democrats are as willing as Republicans to draw maps that favor their party.
Gerrymandering should be viewed as part of a broader trend of democratic backsliding that has gripped much of the world. Democratic backsliding, also referred to as democratic erosion, is seen by many scholars as the most potent threat to liberal democracy in the modern era. Throughout the 20th century, many democracies died with a bang. A coup d’état, a presidential power grab, or a military takeover heralded the immediate end of a democratic system.
Today, democratic backsliding is the more potent threat. Would-be autocrats now operate within the democratic framework to erode it from the inside, rather than bring it crashing down in one fell swoop. Using legal channels, they try to change the rules of the game to entrench their own partisans, reduce channels of public accountability, and remove opposition parties as a legitimate threat. Importantly, democratic erosion is subtle. It is designed to look innocuous, to appear as if it is simply a normal function of the democratic process.
By its very nature, gerrymandering entrenches partisans. Rather than voters choosing their politicians, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters. Recall that Wisconsin’s tipping-point Assembly district in 2018 voted for the Republican candidate by 12 points. That means that 54 of Wisconsin’s 99 districts voted for a Republican by more than 12 points, landslide margins in our polarized electorate. In those districts, and similar districts around the country, it is functionally impossible for an incumbent affiliated with the gerrymandering party to lose.
This pattern also takes its toll on accountability. When one party is virtually guaranteed to win a general election, one of the only accountability mechanisms left is the primary election. If a politician in a heavily gerrymandered district takes unpopular stances, voters can seek to oust them by voting for a primary challenger. But primary elections in the United States are significantly less salient and see much lower voter turnout than general elections. In an environment where few voters are participating and few even know what each candidate stands for, accountability is fundamentally eroded.
The threat gerrymandering poses to a multi-party democracy is less clear on the surface. The House of Representatives has changed hands multiple times in the last two decades, and neither major party is on the verge of irrelevance. But the threat is not to parties on the federal level, at least not yet. Gerrymandering is making opposition parties irrelevant in more and more state governments, however. In Wisconsin and Ohio, states that are divided roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats, Democrats have no real chance of ever securing legislative majorities. In Colorado and Oregon, the same is true for Republicans. There are a growing number of states where one-party dominance is the norm, not the exception.
What makes this behavior so insidious is that it is all perfectly legal. No federal law exists outlawing gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has ruled that partisan gerrymandering is an issue that federal courts are not allowed to rule on at all. Only mild limits exist on gerrymandering based on race, and those limits are increasingly under threat. Partisan actors are working within the bounds of U.S. law, making their anti-democratic actions harder to identify and combat. Gerrymandering’s legality creates a greater threat to American democracy than ballot stuffing or media censorship ever could.