History of Gerrymandering in the United States
The term gerrymandering was first coined in 1812 by the Boston Gazette. The term was created in reference to how certain districts in the Massachusetts district map looked after the Jeffersonian Republicans had redistricted it in their favor. Since then the term gerrymandering has been used to refer to when state legislatures will use the system of redistricting, which happens about every ten years, to favor their own party. They accomplish this by either drawing districts that split up their political opponent’s voter bases into different districts or putting all of their opponent’s voters into as few districts as possible. They do this while ensuring that they can win as many of the districts as possible. This first instance of gerrymandering by the Jeffersonian Republicans was heavily punished by the voters in the next election as the opposing party, the Federalists, regained a majority in the state legislature the next year.
Gerrymandering has been around in the United States almost since the beginning of its conception. Gerrymandering has always been looked down upon but has been used for various goals over the course of American history. The practice of gerrymandering was most notably used to suppress African American men from voting in the aftermath of the Civil War until Southern white Americans found other methods to suppress the African American vote. Recently, gerrymandering has once again become popular and many state legislatures took huge advantage of this in the most recent opportunity to redistrict in 2020.
There are a couple of changes that have enabled state legislatures to effectively gerrymander their states again. Firstly, in 2010 Republicans were been able to gain a large enough majority in many states that have allowed them to control the redistricting process in its entirety without input from Democrats. They used this opportunity to consolidate their power through redistricting in 2010. Secondly, technology has been developed to the level where party operatives are able to draw up hundreds if not thousands of potential district maps within minutes as opposed to having to hand-draw maps. Not only are these maps better than the hand-drawn maps, but party operatives also have many more choices of which maps they wish to utilize. Finally, gerrymandering has been somewhat enabled legally through the 2019 Supreme Court Case Rucho v. Common Cause which ruled that questions of gerrymandering were beyond the reach of federal courts because the questions are too political in nature. This emboldened many state legislatures to draw extremely gerrymandered district maps.
Republicans or Democrats?
In their book entitled How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, prominent political scientist, Tom Ginsburg, and one of the leading American legal scholars, Aziz Huq, wrote that presently the Republican party is the party that has been utilizing and benefitting from gerrymandering the most. They do acknowledge that both parties are guilty of gerrymandering in the past though. The rest of this blog post seeks to evaluate whether this claim is either substantiated or disproven by the most recent redistricting of many states in 2020. Their book was written in 2018 so this statement referred to 2010 redistricting which Republicans used to gerrymander heavily but it is interesting got see if this trend continued in 2020 or if Democrats tried to also gerrymander the states that they controlled.
In 2020, Democrats controlled 19 state legislatures and Republicans controlled 29 state legislatures. The remaining two state legislatures were either split or nonpartisan. This means that Republicans had more opportunities to gerrymander than Democrats. This opportunity to gerrymander was particularly important because of the Democrat’s slender lead in the House of Representatives. If Republicans could gerrymander successfully it could practically ensure their successful takeover of the House in 2022. Because of this, I will consider the state congressional maps only. Not all of the data has been finalized and many of the district maps are still being litigated as the redistricting happened recently, but the Princeton Gerrymandering Project has started to grade many of the proposed and finalized district maps. From the available data so far, Republicans received an “F” on their congressional maps in Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin and Democrats received an “F” on their congressional maps in New York, Illinois, and Oregon. Republicans also received a “C” in Georgia. Notably, many of these states did not utilize a commission to create a nonpartisan district map but instead let the legislature approve their own map. The states which created the fairest maps according to the Princeton Gerrymandering project generally used a nonpartisan commission.
From the data that is available so far, it seems like both Democrats and Republicans gerrymandered their states at somewhat equal levels after the 2020 census. This could obviously change as the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, and other evaluators of state district maps work towards evaluating the level of gerrymandering in those maps and as many of the maps are finalized through both the courts and state legislatures. What does seem to be consistent so far is that the states which utilized non-partisan commissions seem to produce fairer and less gerrymandered maps. This points to the use of these non-partisan commissions as a way out of the extreme gerrymandering we are presently experiencing. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018): 126-130.
I appreciate your analysis of the upcoming redistricting maps, although it will be just as interesting to see if this trend continues at a local level, as there is opportunity for both parties to gerrymander districts in the same state. Further, usually redistricting coincides with the Census which gives us another area to look at. The gerrymandering conversation often focuses solely on redistricting and not on the potential for political interference on collecting census data, or policies and rhetoric that may have impact on population itself (i.e. incentives for middle- to upper-class white people to move to the suburbs, including perceived threat to way of life).  All of which can also influence the redistricting process.
Hi Ryan! I appreciate your descriptive piece on gerrymandering, as well as your non-partisanship. This piece caused me to reflect on two things. First, I think it is really difficult to remain “non-partisan” regarding politics in the United States, and even if one is to attempt to avoid partisanship, I believe that it is clear that the Republican party has been disproportionately responsible for strategic redistricting in recent decades. Though many observers point to 2020 as a year in which Democrats were also guilty of redistricting, I do question any conflations of the two parties’ efforts. After the simulation in which my class participated (I do not know if you did this as well), in which we simulated an election cycle within an increasingly polarized country, I noticed that it is difficult for one party to work in the interests of Democracy if the other party is not playing by these same rules. What is the democratic party supposed to do in order to combat Republican gerrymandering, and how do we assess what fair redistricting would look like? The conundrum of redistricting is quite clear: in order to ameliorate the extant partisan distribution of districts, we would need to redistrict in some “fair” way, forcing us to consider what a fair redistribution would look like. Would we draw districts in such a way that each contains a relatively even split of Democrats and Republicans? Would we create more districts that lean Democratic in order to balance out the Republican incumbency in other districts? I have wondered about this for a long time.
Perhaps a nonpartisan body should be responsible for redistricting — but this doesn’t solve the problem of the logistical, political, and perhaps even moral difficulties of determining who belongs in what district. At Brown, researchers devised an algorithm intended to combat gerrymandering, but I even question this, as the underlying assumptions of any attempt to combat it is that there is an inherently ‘fairer’ way to divide the country into congressional districts. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that a crucial tenet of a working democracy is the legitimate competition of political parties for votes and political power. In fact, within Schumpeter’s framework, this is the only identifiable characteristic of democracy. So perhaps it can be argued that my earlier proposition that redistricting in such a way that there is a more equitable distribution of political ideology amongst a given constituency would be the most democratic course of action.