A federal judge ruled that Georgia’s congressional and state legislative districts must be redrawn prior to the 2024 election. The report concluded that the Republican-drawn political maps, which took effect on December 31st, 2021, discriminated against Black voters.
Gerrymandering is central to U.S. politics and the conversation around democratic backsliding within the country. Scholarly literature cites it as one of many voter suppression techniques used to narrow the political power of Black residents in the state (Bentele & O’Brien 2013), but also Democrats, who Black voters overwhelmingly support. These forms of voter suppression are directly linked to racial discrimination.
However, in the case of Georgia, and a few other states, racial gerrymandering is illegal but partisan gerrymandering is legal. The complexity of Georgia’s redistricting ruling involves disentangling whether the gerrymandering is racially or politically motivated. The judge ruled that the maps were specifically harmful to Black voters, but what if the opposite conclusion was reached? What if the maps were harmful to only Democrats?
Georgia is a bifurcated Black state, meaning there is a white majority in the state, but there is also a large, critical Black population. As previously stated, Black voters are overwhelmingly Democrats in their political affiliation. However, both Democrats and Black folks are concentrated in urban areas across the country (Cramer 2016). Is it possible to target Democrats in Georgia without targeting Black voters? What does this mean for legality in voter suppression?
One of the key features of democratic backsliding is the incremental, subtle methods that are used. Blatant coups are much less common than they were decades ago. The use of legal institutions to erode democratic norms is much more acceptable to the general populous than direct military takeovers. So, even though Georgia’s districts were deemed unconstitutional, they were still effective for the 2022 midterms, and there’s a high chance that the new district maps will reach a similar conclusion for the 2024 election as well. And this is all because of the notion that partisan gerrymandering is legal in select states even if racial gerrymandering is not.
Legality is a tricky framework to operate under because the world in which we live in is constantly changing. Something that may be considered legal today might not be legal tomorrow. Take marijuana for instance. The drug has been historically banned in the U.S., and while we are far from a federal legalization or decriminalization, many states have taken the steps to do just that. Legality as a framework is very narrow compared to the numerous ways in which behaviors, norms, and even democracy is influenced. Social movements, the flow of information, and social exclusion are all ways in which democracy can be affected (Hochschild 2016; Lehoucq 2008; Persily 2017). What makes legality and legal, democratic institutions so particularly significant, however, is their final say, the authority they exert over a nation-state.
Generally speaking, when a liberal democracy certifies that their elections are free and fair, the world believes them because of their long-established democratic institutions. This is what makes democratic backsliding difficult to capture and address. Subtle changes here and there over the course of years and decades are difficult to recognize and attribute to backsliding, akin to a frog sitting in increasingly boiling water. The same goes for the debate over legality frameworks in gerrymandering. The U.S. is hailed as a haven for democracy – its constitution the oldest in the world – and, therefore, contains the strongest democratic foundations. Racial gerrymandering is rightly unconstitutional, but it’s framed as something the U.S. has already dealt with. The argument Republican lawmakers use are that people of color are already equal, so, it is not about race, it is about political identity. However, we live in a situation where political affiliation is so intimately related to race, especially for Black Americans. It is difficult to see the citation of legal frameworks about partisan versus racial gerrymandering as something other than democratic institutions being used to undermine democracy. Although disproportionate, both Democrats and Republicans have gerrymandered in the past, highlighting the continual importance of analyzing democratic backsliding in the U.S.
Bentele, Keith G., and Erin E. O’Brien. 2013. “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Perspectives on Politics 11 (4): 1088-1116.
Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press. Chapters 1, 9 and 15.
Lehoucq, Fabrice. 2008. “Bolivia’s Constitutional Breakdown.” Journal of Democracy. 19(4): pp. 110-124.
Persily, Nathaniel. 2017. “The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Journal of Democracy 28(2): 63–76.