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.