Every ten years, American state legislatures redraw their congressional districts according to census data. The Constitution tasks them with this responsibility so all voters are fairly represented and accounted for. However, the practice of gerrymandering--strategically splitting up the districts to benefit one’s political party--undermines this principle.
Gerrymandering can be used to give an outnumbered political party in a state the majority of the House seats or to strengthen one’s existing majority. Imagine a state with fifteen million voters, nine million of which are Democrats and six million Republicans, and five districts. If everyone voted for the Congressional candidate in their party, three districts should have elected Democrats and two should have Republicans. A perfect distribution is impossible, so the breakdown will vary some. However, depending on which party controls the state legislature, the districts can be intentionally manipulated to give the party in power an unfair advantage in the future. Since only a simple majority is needed to elect a Congressperson, the members of the opposition party can either be spread thinly or concentrated in a few districts to reduce their power.
For example, the Democrats could draw the districts in the following way (with each letter D representing one million Democrats and R representing one million Republicans):
District 1: DDR
District 2: DDR
District 3: DDR
District 4: DDR
District 5: RRD
Democratic voters would therefore have a majority in four of the five districts. Meanwhile, the Republicans could do the following:
District 1: RRD
District 2: RRD
District 3: RRD
District 4: DDD
District 5: DDD
With this model, the six million Republicans would be represented by more Congresspeople than the nine million Democrats.
Naturally, both parties are guilty of gerrymandering. Maryland, for example, is one of the most gerrymandered states and has been historically controlled by Democrats. However, this practice has been disproportionately used by Republicans.
An Associated Press analysis of the 2016 House of Representatives race states that the Republicans won 22 more seats than what would have seemed likely considering the division of voters. Of course, this could be attributed to factors other than gerrymandering. The right could have been more appealing to voters that year--a Republican was elected President, after all. Additionally, Democrats tend to concentrate themselves in cities, reducing their clout.
However, the Brennan Center for Justice published a report stating that Republicans have an approximate 16-17 seat advantage in the House, judging from the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections (which occurred after the redistricting from the 2010 census). Most of the highly gerrymandered maps belong to battleground states that have fairly evenly distributed representation of both major political parties. The Brennan Center reports there is “strong evidence” this sort of districting is not just a coincidence.
In the House of Representatives race in 2012, the New York Times reported that the Democrats nationally received 1.4 million more votes than the Republicans. However, the Republicans won the House by 31 seats. Gerrymandered states in favor of the right were the cause of this discrepancy. Republicans won more seats in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin despite Democrats winning over half the votes in those states. Virginia, Ohio, and Florida were also redistricted by Republican-dominated state legislatures and elected a disproportionate amount of Republicans. Texas’s results were also slanted towards Republicans, but its districting was influenced by federal courts. Democrats in Arizona also seemed to receive a boost, but an independent commission had drawn their map. Illinois was the only state districted by a Democratic state legislature with skewed results towards Democrats, while seven states with Republican legislatures favored their own party.
One way to combat gerrymandering is to contest it in the courts. The Supreme Court ruled against the state of North Carolina in Shaw v. Reno (1993), saying the way the districts were drawn disenfranchised African Americans and declared this unconstitutional. The Court will be hearing another case in 2017 about Wisconsin, which is accused of having been divided to benefit Republicans. Gerrymandering based on race has struck down before. This case will set a precedent for gerrymandering based on political affiliation.
Independent commissions are more successful. A general ballot initiative in California in 2008 created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a nonpartisan organization composed of private citizens devoted to fairly drawing the district lines. The state legislature no longer has power over the drawing of Congressional districts. Similar non- and bipartisan organizations exist in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington. Several states also have commissions that control legislative, not Congressional, redistricting, which is not ideal but is better than nothing.
While both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, Republicans use it more to their benefit. But regardless of one’s political leanings, there is a clear need to eliminate this practice which is an affront to democracy and American values.
De Vogue, Ariane, and Daniella Diaz. "Supreme Court Takes Partisan Gerrymandering Case."CNN Politics. Cable News Network, 20 June 2017. Web. 25 June 2017.
"FAQ." California Citizens Redistricting Commission. California Citizens Redistricting Commission, 2014. Web. 25 June 2017.
Lieb, David A. "AP Analysis Shows How Gerrymandering Benefited GOP in 2016." PBS News Hour. Public Broadcasting Service, 24 June 2017. Web. 25 June 2017.
Royden, Laura, and Michael Li. "Extreme Maps." Brennan Center for Justice. New York University School of Law, 09 May 2017. Web. 25 June 2017.
Wang, Sam. "The Great Gerrymander of 2012." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 June 2017.