Many Americans take no note of the redistricting process that takes place every ten years within each state; but I argue that we should be paying close attention. Redistricting is simply the way that we modify electoral regions’ boundaries, which in turn, decides which individuals or politicians will represent us. A Supreme Court decision in 1964 required that states’ legislative districts be comprised of roughly the same population, if possible. So, every decade after the census, each state’s legislature, independent body, or some combination of both redraw that state’s political districts however they seem fit, according to their populations, without racially discriminating against minority voting groups.
The biggest issue that we come across today is that new maps don’t always accurately reflect the true population. This is where gerrymandering comes in, or the act of purposely manipulating a district (during the drawing process) in a way that inhibits the competition’s ability to win elections. The act of gerrymandering is not new to the U.S. political landscape and has a long history that dates back to the election of the first U.S. Congress in 17891. Over time, gerrymandering has transformed into a political weapon, used by both major parties in the U.S. This practice has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, and it poses a serious threat to the fairness and legitimacy of our democratic institutions as well as American democracy as we know it.
Gerrymandering tends to come in two distinct forms: cracking and packing. Packing refers to drawing the lines in a way that the opposing party wins an election in one district by a landslide. This in turn causes surrounding districts to be much less competitive, leaving the overall state power in the hands of the gerrymanderer. One direct example of this is in Alabama, where House District 7 encompasses nine out of twelve Democratic majority counties in the whole state, molding the rest of the districts into Republican strongholds. Cracking on the other hand involves splitting one group of voters across multiple districts, leaving them with no power in any of those districts. For this, we can look at Utah’s congressional map as a whole. Utah is comprised of four districts total, in which all four meet up right in the middle of Salt Lake City, the largest democratic stronghold in the state, essentially splitting it into four different districts2. This makes each of the four districts much less competitive, as Democrats in Utah have much less influence in four districts than one. Utah has an independent redistricting commission, but the legislature makes the final decision on which map to use. The legislature decided to ignore all three maps that this independent commission drew, deciding on their own map in the end3.
It is hard to talk about gerrymandering without mentioning the Democratic party as well. In 2019, then House speaker Nancy Pelosi called gerrymandering, “unjust and deeply dangerous”. But 2022, in a way, could be seen as a ‘battle of the gerrymanders’, where gerrymandering districts was seen on both sides, even after Democrats themselves denounce the act. New York was in the news during their redistricting process, mostly because their state courts threw out “Democratically gerrymandered” maps, and in their place, some of the most competitive maps in the country emerged. In 2014, Governor Cuomo signed legislation thats goal was to change the way the state’s political maps are drawn, but essentially, these reforms were targeted for a competitive “gridlock”, in which New York as a whole is not. This New York example merely presents the idea that quality of reform is important.
Extreme gerrymandering is dangerous, especially to those who care about the health of democracy in the United States. Free and fair elections are arguably the most important part of any democracy, so why do we let our politicians alter the results to their benefit? In May of 2019, The Center for American Progress published a study that found that gerrymandered congressional districts altered the results of 59 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections. They claim that in each of those years, if congressional district lines had been drawn fairly, 59 politicians in the House would not have been elected4 in each of those years. The University of Delaware, Institute for Public Administration tells us that the reelection rate in the House of Representatives in 2018 was 91%, but this is nothing new5. People are much less likely to show out to vote when there are expectations on who is going to win an election. The Brennan Center for Justice claims that as of 2022, there are fewer competitive districts throughout all 50 states than at any point in the last 52 years. If we look back to 1970, electoral democracy in the U.S. was rated at a staggering 0.71, which is nothing to brag about.
Turnout in the 2022 Midterm elections for the total voting-eligible population was just under 47%, and this is considered somewhat high for an off-year election. Even when we look at presidential elections, the overall voting-age population turnout in 2020 was around 63%. This is far behind other countries who score worse in overall Democracy Index, like Belgium, who’s turnout in 2019 was 78% (registered voters are mandated to vote) or Poland whose turnout in 2020 was just about 70%67. Gerrymandering in the U.S. has contributed to a “cost” of voting that many Americans don’t feel is worth it, as to one of the many reasons why turnout has remained so low.
Democracy was created as a system where there is ‘rule by the people’, but this is not what we see in the U.S. today. When we allow politicians to power grab in an attempt to get reelected, as well as maintain this partisan control, all competition gets thrown out of the window. Alongside this, minority communities are often impacted at a much higher rate than white communities are. When I mentioned Alabama’s House District 7 earlier, where nine of twelve Democratic majority counties are thrown into the same district, those same nine counties all have a Black population above 50%. How can we call ourselves a democracy ‘by the people’ when the number one process that keeps a democracy alive, voting, is undermined so consistently.
I may be partial in saying this, but some sort of reform is obviously needed. Independent redistricting and review commissions are obviously a good start. Giving power to those who have no ties to the legislature will be a difficult thing to do but is necessary for the health of our democracy. Many, like I, with more radical ideas believe that the current system of single-member districts is inadequate and propose completely different systems like proportional representation systems that are popular throughout some of the world’s most thriving democracies. In the meantime, the Freedom to Vote Act has the potential to enact immense guidelines for the redistricting process, as well as cut down on partisan gerrymandering altogether. At the end of the day, simple policy change could result in monumental changes in elections here in the United States.
1 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/448116 2 https://gerrymander.princeton.edu/redistricting-report-card?planId=recc9zcygP9ueJn1K 3 https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/redistricting-2022-maps/utah/ 4 https://www.americanprogress.org/article/voter-determined-districts/ 5 https://udspace.udel.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/286e7768-c1b3-476d-810c-0767696f9643/content 6 https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2022/ 7 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/11/01/turnout-in-u-s-has-soared-in-recent-elections-but-by-some-measures-still-trails-that-of-many-other-countries/