Every ten years, state legislatures, independent commissions, politician commissions, advisory commissions, and backup commissions redraw legislative boundaries across the country. The redrawing, called redistricting, is meant to reflect changes in population. In theory, it is supposed to improve democracy, but in practice it is weaponized by different groups, primarily partisan politicians, to divert and seize political power for themselves or their party.
The practice of “Gerrymandering”, or the manipulation of electoral districts to favor one socioeconomic class or political party over another, has been present in America’s redistricting process for centuries. While the practice was not explicitly named until 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry created a salamander-shaped state senate district to bring more Democratic-Republicans into power, its history can be traced back to the country’s founding.
One of gerrymandering’s primary tactics is “packing”, drawing strongholds of partisan voters or ethnic minorities into a singular district to dilute voting and political power amongst the group. The complementary tool is the logical opposite, “cracking”. Cracking is the intentional division of partisan voters or ethnic minorities into multiple districts where their voting power is diminished so greatly the group is left with limited influence on elections. When one or both tactics is deployed, it has massive repercussions on democracy overall.
The 2020 redistricting is going on across the United States right now. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the redistricting process has been delayed as 2020 Census data took longer to collect and arrange.
Every so often, major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post will run stories offering minimal coverage of the new maps being decided on and sometimes subsequently litigated in court. However, the majority of Americans do not give much attention to redistricting. The lack of spotlight allows for extremely gerrymandered, outright outrageously drawn maps to succeed in front of the few, select individuals that are needed for approval.
A major reason as to why the current redistricting poses a sizable threat to democracy is due to its snowballing nature. When during one cycle, excessively gerrymandered districts make their way onto the finalized maps, they cement more political power for the gerrymandering party. Gerrymandering eliminates what would naturally be a naturally competitive district when based on geography, and has the potential to turn it into a democratic or republican stronghold. Throughout the following ten years, more and more candidates from the gerrymandering party will be elected who, in turn, will furtherly gerrymander when they are in charge of drawing the maps. Once a political party is disadvantaged to win seats, especially in state legislative races who are typically the ones drawing the maps, it becomes an uphill battle to regain what once were competitive electoral districts. The snowball effect of partisan gerrymandering erodes democracy as the competitive aspects of a centrally competitive principle begins to be withheld from the electoral process entirely.
Gerrymandering’s abuse of the redistricting process can easily be interpreted as a means of invoking “stealth” authoritarianism, the idea that authoritarian and anti-democratic actions are concealed under the law itself. Since the democratic abusers are participating in a legitimate and democratically-intentioned process, in the eyes of the everyday citizen it is difficult to differentiate between their underlying anti-democratic behavior and good-faith redistricting.
Increasing partisan polarization in the United States has greatly impacted the redistricting process and spawned a significant rise in gerrymandered maps. Due to the narrow majority currently being held by democrats in the House of Representatives, republicans across the country have become increasingly aggressive in hopes of regaining the majority and establishing political power for decades to come. In the current political environment, there is no mutual toleration when it comes to partisan gerrymandering. The increasing political polarization coinciding with a massive rise in right-wing populism has caused politicians to totally disregard the desire for fair maps. In viewing their potential opponents in competitive districts as existential threats, partisan politicians are more than willing to abandon democratic norms in favor obtaining safer, bluer or redder, districts for candidates from their parties.
Just recently, the republican-majority state legislature in Florida submitted its redrawn map proposal. Likely to be approved by Florida’s republican governor, it would shift from a likely 16 republican-11 democrat congressional delegation now to a 19 republican-9 democrat delegation (Florida is gaining a seat from reapportionment). Invoking such a map would transform at least 3 currently competitive districts to heavily republican-leaning. By passing such a gerrymandered map, republicans in the Florida state legislature demonstrate no institutional forbearance as they deploy every tactic in their metaphorical gerrymander arsenal to eliminate more competitive districts and win more seats.
Gerrymandering has commonly been described as a paradox where instead of the voters choosing the politicians, the politicians choose the voters. This premise might appear oversimplified, but it is indicative what occurs when gerrymandering takes shape. As less and less legislative districts remain competitive, the voters are given less choice in choosing who they want to best represent them. Running counter to democratic principles and intentions, the weaponization of redistricting by partisan politicians has transformed a safeguard into a vehicle for democratic backsliding.
Democracy suffers as a result of politicians choosing their partisan allegiance over their interest in preserving democracy. When partisan gerrymandering occurs like it is occurring rampantly in 2022, partisan politicians win, while the institution of democracy in the United States loses.