What is Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is an issue that has not only stretched through US history in different ways but is something that continues to be a problem in the United States’ political system today. Merriam-Webster defines gerrymandering as the practice of dividing or arranging a territorial unit into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage in elections. What this definition doesn’t include is that gerrymandering is not specific to political parties but any class or group of people, including race. Gerrymandering is when a certain district is manipulated so that a certain class or group is unfairly represented. There are two main ways this is achieved: packing and cracking. Cracking is when a district’s voting power is diluted across many districts to reduce their voting power in that district. Packing is when a party’s voting power is grouped into one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.
Despite all the possible types of gerrymandering only 2 are still prominent today: political and racial gerrymandering. When comparing the case of racial gerrymandering in school districts in Jacksonville, FL to the political gerrymandering case of North Carolina used in the 2020 elections, we can see that gerrymandering is a strategy that politicians utilize to weaken democracy in a seemingly legitimate, but in reality illegal way.
The Illegal yet Persistent Life of Racial Gerrymandering
Starting from the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the case Gomillion v. Lightfoot, where an electoral district in Tuskegee, AL was racially gerrymandered, compared to the recent districts racially gerrymandered by the Jacksonville City Council in Florida, the similarities and outcomes are almost mirrored. In both cases, the former from 1960, and the latter from 2022, shows how despite racial gerrymandering being ruled as unconstitutional in Supreme Court cases like Gomillion v. Lightfoot and its successors, racial gerrymandering is still attempted to this day. However, the persistence of racial gerrymandering is visible through the dozens of racial gerrymandering cases that were presented to the Supreme Court despite its ruling in Gomillion v. Lightfoot. Although cases like Jacksonville City Council were quickly blocked by the courts, Judge Howard states “the irreparable Constitutional harm caused by the unnecessary racial segregation of voters in the Challenged Districts will be complete and perpetuate for years into the future”. No doubt showing the damage this event causes to democracy in the US.
Political Gerrymandering’s Untouchability
Unlike racial gerrymandering, political gerrymandering has not been handled the same way. Although some lower courts did try to stop blatant instances of political gerrymandering, they were appealed and ended up being dismissed, not overruled, by the Supreme Court. The infamous reason regarding the dismissal is known as the political question doctrine which ultimately makes all cases regarding political gerrymandering not able to be judged by the Supreme Court. In other words, it is untouchable, but to the politicians, in their eyes, this meant it was legal.
The political question doctrine is the doctrine that if the courts, which are typically viewed as the apolitical branch of government, are presented with a case that is so politically charged then they should not rule on the case. In the case Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court “ruled that claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering are not subject to federal court review because they present non-justiciable political questions”. This cemented the decision that allows for political gerrymandering to exist without a proper check against it.
Allowing political gerrymandering to exist with the judicial branch legitimately ruling that this topic is “non-justiciable”, sets the course for continuous executive aggrandizement. A part of executive aggrandizement includes the use of gerrymandering as a method of keeping the executive in power without the complete use of democracy. Manipulating the voice of the people so that the voice of the majority is suppressed by the voice of the few, weakens democracy and is a substantial step toward autocratization.
Regarding this current issue with North Carolina’s political gerrymandering that the Republican party conducted to both pack and crack Democratic votes was largely successful. Despite having a 48.6% Democratic voting population, the Republican party locked 10 out of 14 congressional seats. North Carolina’s 6th congressional district has an overwhelming Democratic population. Previously, in the 2020 election, Joe Biden won the district by 24 points (shown below).
However, the new district lines (dark lines) drawn by the NC legislature (shown below) cracks NC District 6’s Democratic population into several districts which dilutes their votes and makes their districts be controlled by the Republican party.
This results in the voice of the Democrats becoming silenced because of the dilution that has been put into effect with the new congressional district lines.
Ultimately, the decision that was made that said cases of political gerrymandering are non-justiciable to preserve the integrity of the courts has instead made a huge crack in the integrity of democracy. Allowing political gerrymandering to exist without a nationwide check or regulation regarding the redistricting process in state legislatures, creates an abuse of the democratic institutions. It allows the state legislatures to single-handedly suppress the majority and skew the voice of the people in their state and as result possibly the entire nation. It is time for proper regulations to be created to check and prohibit the use of political gerrymandering in the US. If there is already “irreparable Constitutional harm” from racial gerrymandering which has been strictly blocked by the Supreme Court, how much harm does political gerrymandering bring?
The author provided an excellent analysis of how gerrymandering in the United States threatens democracy. Judicial precedent regarding the “untouchability” of political gerrymandering is useful in understanding why gerrymandering takes place without judicial intervention. Empirical data coming from North Carolina’s sixth district supports the author’s claims and demonstrates the impact of political gerrymandering on proper representation.
However, presenting racial and political gerrymandering as two different entities ignores how voters’ racial identities contribute to their political leanings. While the author provides evidence on how overt racial gerrymandering was outlawed by the Supreme Court, it is important to note how racial and political gerrymandering become synonyms as parties shift to representing certain racial groups. Because white non-Hispanic voters traditionally vote Republican, and Black, Asian, and Hispanic voters traditionally vote Democrat (https://www.pewresearch.org/2020/09/23/the-changing-racial-and-ethnic-composition-of-the-u-s-electorate/), efforts to gerrymander along partisan lines can have racial incentives. This perpetuates a “legal” racial gerrymandering that undermines judicial precedent and underscores democratic failure.
Analyzing political gerrymandering in terms of racial identities is important to understanding race-based political discrimination in the United States. Applying this lens to North Carolina’s sixth district allows for a better understanding of lawmakers’ intentions in breaking up the district. This provides a more nuanced understanding of political gerrymandering and how it takes away from the Unites States’ democracy. Overall, the author did well in illustrating the negative effect of gerrymandering. Further research into how political and racial gerrymandering intersect would compound their claim and allow for a stronger analysis.
Cayden Bobley O'Connor
Your writing has a tremendous amount of empirical data to solidify its claims, and as Aiden commented I agree that your analysis of the issue was quite excellent on the whole, however, building on his comment about how racial and political gerrymandering are not two separate entities, but very much intertwined, I would like to highlight other points of identity that are often the subject of gerrymandering: Household income, and religion. Take Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, in 2012, for example: (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bal-3rd-district-called-a-religious-gerrymander-20121004-story.html) It was gerrymandered to pack Jewish voters into the district to pad the reelection of Representative John Sarbanes. Generally, demographics pertaining to long-term identity, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, and economic status fall under the umbrella of political gerrymandering, and I think your writing could benefit from paying more attention to this idea. Things such as the affluence of neighborhoods serve as a starting point for aspiring gerrymanderers to draw lines, as the working class generally votes more Democratic, and the wealthy, more conservatively. Overall, though, your work is solid, and your thoughts are well researched.