Gerrymandering is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, and for good reason. In fact, in 2021 CNN reported that voters consider gerrymandering to be biggest election related issue in the country. Gerrymandering has been a particularly contentious issue in Utah, where there has been great controversy over the new congressional district map. The heavily gerrymandered map has caused unfair disproportional representation. Gerrymandering harms democracy because it causes disproportional representation.
As of 2023, Utah has 266,219 residents registered as Democrats, with 1,891,462 total voters. That is roughly 14% of the voting population registered as Democrats, with almost all of these voters being located in Salt Lake City. So it would make sense that a district containing Salt Lake City would at least be somewhat competitive, right? Theoretically, it would be. However, there is not a district that contains Salt Lake City, but four separate districts that each contain about a quarter of Salt Lake City.
Of course, even in a fair election, a Democrat victory is not extremely likely. There are still a substantial number of voters that are either Republican or of unknown affiliation. But that doesn’t mean that voters shouldn’t at least have a fair shot of choosing a candidate that they think will properly represent them.
How did such bizarre looking districts come about? A referendum organized by Better Boundaries decided that the fairest way to decide where district lines should be would be to use an independent redistricting committee. So a committee was created, and created three potential maps to choose from. Two out of the three maps kept most of Salt Lake City in the same district. The maps were clearly drawn in a nonpartisan way.
But instead of choosing any of the three maps created by the independent redistricting committee, the Utah legislature chose a map of their own design, which was obviously drawn with the intention to divide Salt Lake City in a way that would prevent a Democratic candidate from being competitive. This incident revealed many of the flaws of redistricting methods, including how gerrymandering leads to continuous disproportional representation.
For one, the Utah redistricting fiasco shows how ineffective independent redistricting committees are. One of the causes of this ineffectiveness is that the legislature themselves chooses who will do the redistricting, which can lead to one party being unfairly disadvantaged. In the case of Utah, the majority party is the Republicans. The Utah Redistricting Committee had 40 members, only 4 of whom were Democrats. In this instance, Republicans were by far the dominant force on the committee, allowing them to tip the scales in their direction. And as was shown, the legislature does not have to choose from the maps drawn by the committee, essentially nullifying the entire point of having a committee.
In Utah, gerrymandering has prevented otherwise competitive elections from being competitive, leading to disproportional representation in one of the most populated areas of the state. Furthermore, gerrymandering leads to continued disproportional representation over time, as politicians that benefit from gerrymandering can stay in power and continue to gerrymander, thus perpetuating a system that does not properly represent the people.
Gerrymandering causes disproportional representation. So what? That’s just how the game is played right? Well, disproportionate representation causes all sorts of issues. For one, it is inherently undemocratic. The ideal of democracy is that everyone can have an equal voice. Gerrymandering hurts this, as it makes some people’s voices matter more than others. Admittedly, democratic ideals are difficult to live up to for any democracy. But a system that allows for reshaping of districts accounts for the ever-changing nature of public opinion. Redistricting should be done to try to make representation as proportional as possible, not the other way around.
Disproportional representation also has psychological effects on American voters. In 2020, 16% of Americans who did not vote chose not to vote because they felt like their vote didn’t matter. Much of this sentiment likely came from the effect that gerrymandering has on representation. Gerrymandering causes districts that should have competitive elections to be uncompetitive, making voters feel as if they do not have an actual chance to be properly represented, and discourages these potential voters from voting. And when voter turnout suffers, democracy suffers. Democracy only works when everyone does their part.
Gerrymandering harms democracy at multiple levels. It is antithetical to the concept of democracy. A gerrymandered system causes disproportional representation, and prevents people’s voices from being heard. Gerrymandering also causes voters to feel as if voting doesn’t matter, and discourages them from going to their polls. Representation and participation are both essential to function of democracy, and gerrymandering gets in the way of both.