Countless Americans were left stunned after a Trump victory in 2016, with the majority of news outlets and polls predicting a win for Democratic Candidate and Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. With organizations like the Princeton Election Consortium going so far as to say she had “more than a 99% chance of winning,” it comes without surprise that the masses, some Trump voters included, were not expecting a win for the late President. As Trump’s presidency carried on, his attempts to undermine democracy were applauded in districts that heavily voted for him in 2016, creating an increasingly polarized nation. But if Trump never got elected, would we still have similar forms of democratic erosion in the US?
To understand how Trump’s presidency contributed to democratic backsliding, we must first examine the unprecedented 2016 election, one of only two elections in the US’s history to have a popular vote winner lose the electoral college. Clinton winning the popular vote by almost 3 million more votes than the late president, but managing to lose the 2016 election resulted in a highly unlikely, yet still possible scenario within the realm of the US political system, in which the majority of the country can vote for a candidate, and that candidate can still lose the election based on electoral college votes. With tens of thousands protesting Trump’s victory nationwide and hundreds of individuals arrested, many wondered how a “flaw” in the political system of the United States could result in an unpopular candidate winning office.
The United States’ history of gerrymandering, or the practice of redrawing district lines once-a-decade period with intent to influence or sway votes towards a specific political party, has been proven to significantly help Republicans into office, as much as 4X as much as Democrats. In theory, the practice of redrawing district lines’ main objective is to gather census information to redraw federal congressional districts that ensure districts of equal populations and be representative of the population of a certain area. With community and city changes, the process of redistricting, in theory, is to create more representative districts that update based on decade. In practice, however, the process of redrawing federal district lines creates a process where political parties choose their voter base, and oftentimes disproportionately affects people of color, leading to democratic backsliding.
With Gerrymandering happening as early as 1812 in Massachusetts, many of the issues involving gerrymandering when redrawing district lines have been long-standing. When black men won the right to vote post-civil war, gerrymandering within southern states significantly increased, with South Carolina going so far as to create a “Boa Constrictor” district in 1882 that segregated black voters to only one district for the collective black population, who made up the majority of the state’s population. Since the practice is not new, it makes gerrymandering incredibly difficult to solve, “A central problem is that many of the institutional choices that create vulnerabilities to constitutional retrogression in the United States are longstanding.” (Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg, 166) With many similar issues contributing to democratic erosion, the process of undoing anti-democratic legislature is incredibly difficult, as many of these practices are ingrained in the political sphere.
One example of extreme gerrymandering is in District 7 in Alabama. A fiercely red state, the state’s 7th district is the only democratic congressional district, with a black percentage of 62.5%, more than 2 times as many black individuals as any other race or ethnicity. Within District 7 are three of the five largest cities in Alabama: Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery, which have historically been black-dominated cities.
While gerrymandering and congressional districts do not have a direct impact on the way states in the US collect presidential votes, it does have an impact on how voters view their own states and the power of their own vote. With heavily gerrymandered states believing that they cannot flip the vote that is not historically theirs, or “a blue state cannot go red, a red state cannot go blue,” there is the clear intention of discouragement of someone of the opposite party voting within that state, as they feel their vote is useless in a state that does not “align” with their own political party. By categorizing states and areas based on gerrymandered districts, which often fail to accurately represent an area, individuals believe there is no purpose in voting. This discouragement is warranted, and it manifests itself in low voter turnout.
With the 2016 election having the lowest voter turnout in more than 20 years and low faith in the political system, many turned to an unapologetic, outsider candidate. Since Donald Trump was anything but a politician, it made him the perfect candidate for frustrated voters who were exhausted by party politics to vote for. Many believe that the polarizing partisanship gerrymandering creates decreases the power of their own vote. This lost faith presents the perfect opportunity for anti-democratic politicians to come in, and exploit these rising partisan tensions.
It was not that Donald Trump was voted into office by a perfectly democratic country, and was the sole cause of democratic backsliding within the nation, but rather, the growing partisan tensions, individual frustrations at a political system that they feared did not represent them, and democratic erosion coupled together was what voted Trump into office, and caused a populist leader to take advantage of the growing polarization of the country, leading to further democratic erosion during his time in office.
Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” UCLA Law Review 65(78): pp. 80-169.
Little, Becky. “How Gerrymandering Began in the US.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 20 Apr. 2021, https://www.history.com/news/gerrymandering-origins-voting.
“Partisan Gerrymandering Benefited Republicans in 2016 Election – Report.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 June 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/25/partisan-gerrymandering-republicans-2016-report.
Li, Michael. “Gerrymandering Explained.” Brennan Center for Justice, 10 Feb. 2022, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/gerrymandering-explained.
Wallace, Gregory. “Voter Turnout at 20-Year Low in 2016 | CNN Politics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 Nov. 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/11/politics/popular-vote-turnout-2016/index.html.
Hi Ariyana, I really liked your discussion of how gerrymandering affected voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. The effects of this phenomenon, while clearly harmful to democracy, can be difficult to detect at a ground level, yet your argument has rendered stark that gerrymandering does more than just redraw borders: It also causes disincentivizes voting—the very essence of democracy. I’d be curious to see what sorts of effects this might have had on congressional races in 2020, seeing as the U.S. has become increasingly polarized because of COVID-19 and other political factors. The voter turnout in the election was very high; was any of this upturn attributable to gerrymandering? I do wonder if gerrymandering could have the opposite effect as you describe here: mobilizing voters of the party disadvantaged during redistricting. The 2020 census will provide plenty of opportunity for this concern to resurface—it’ll definitely be interesting to follow.
I really enjoyed reading your piece about democratic erosion in the United States and how the practice of partisan gerrymandering has greatly contributed to backsliding in the county. I think the question you pose at the end of the introductory paragraph is interesting. It made me ponder my own feelings about what the status of American democracy would be had Trump never been elected to power. In forming my own response to this hypothetical, I would have to agree with you in arguing that gerrymandering’s corrosive effects would still be present. One of the traits of gerrymandering that frequently angers me is the practice’s snowball effect. As districts are gerrymandered every cycle, the unfairness compiles with every subsequent cycle. I think a big issue when it comes to gerrymandering is the lack of judicial intervention or the overuse of judicial intervention, based on partisan beliefs. As the congressional maps are currently being redrawn in 2022, you can see courts around the country using their own discretion when choosing to intervene with the proposing of unfair maps. I also definitely agree with your point about gerrymandering negatively impacting voter turnout, for I have seen it amongst our peers. I happen to live in one of the rare swing congressional districts at home, leaving me incentivized to vote, while my friends in less competitive districts feel no such incentive. This discrepancy is obviously bad for democracy and I appreciate you bringing this often overlooked aspect of gerrymandering to light.