“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats… So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
Now I know saying, “So I drew this map” sounds like one of the least intimidating phrases in the English language, but, in this case, it actually has devastating consequences.
This quote is from David Lewis, a Republican on the North Carolina General Assembly’s redistricting committee, who is gleefully embracing the fact that he stripped millions of North Carolina citizens of having a fair election.
With each decade’s Census, politicians in most states get to redraw their states’ districts to decide whom they do and do not want voting for them. Called gerrymandering, this is exactly what Lewis and the rest of the North Carolina Republican Party have sought to do for years.
While the Constitution prohibits gerrymandering on the basis of race, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has just ruled that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over partisan gerrymandering.
This means that federal courts will not get to weigh in on states’ electoral maps even if they are believed to have been drawn to disenfranchise certain political parties. To get a better understanding of how this may already be affecting you, it is important to see what has already been done in states across the nation.
What Gerrymandering Looks Like
First and foremost, you can use this website to see a breakdown of your district and if it appears to be gerrymandered.
But, for now, let’s look at some cases where the gerrymandering is obvious. In the Wisconsin state legislature, Republicans control 63 out of 99 seats. Unfortunately, there is just one slight problem — Democrats won a majority, 53%, of the state’s popular vote.
Winning 53% of the vote only gave the Democrats about 36% of seats in the Assembly because the Republican-controlled legislature and governorship were able to draw district lines that significantly favored Republicans.
Though Democrats are not innocent of gerrymandering themselves having done so in a few Democratic states, Republican-controlled states nationally have completely utilized their victories in many state legislatures to draw lines that ‘pack and crack’ Democratic constituents to suppress their votes.
Despite just about an 8% loss in the popular vote, Democrats in Pennsylvania received only 5 U.S. House seats to Republicans’ 13 in 2016.
An article from Fox News even states as much when saying, “Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in three straight elections […] even though Pennsylvania’s statewide elections are often closely divided and registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.”
So, when did these maps get to be this bad?
A Brief History Lesson
To understand this problem in a recent setting we can look to the 2010 midterm elections.
With the nation suffering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the newly energized Republican Party was flooded by the Tea Party wave. The ‘Taxed Enough Already’ sentiment heavily encouraged Republicans to vote which lead to sweeping victories in the House and state legislatures across the country.
Luckily for Republicans, 2010 was a Census year which meant that states redistrict their maps. November 2, 2010 lead to 675 state legislature seats being picked up by Republicans giving them control of 26 state governments — a sharp increase from the 14 they controlled prior. This was the largest victory in the states by any party since 1938.
Paired with their sizable pick up in gubernatorial races, the Washington Post claimed, “Republicans couldn’t have timed their big victory any better.” Come the 2012 election, Democrats won 1.1 million more votes nationally in Congressional races, but Republicans sent 33 more members than Democrats to the House as they were able to draw the electoral maps to their benefit.
While it is unconstitutional for states to draw their lines based upon constituents’ race, the question now in many states is if they can draw maps with respect to party affiliation.
In 2016, Republican North Carolina State Representative David Lewis, our friend from the beginning of this piece, said race was, “not to be a factor in drawing the districts,” but that his party would, “use political data in drawing [the] map. It is to gain partisan advantage on the map.”
Now, following yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, the ability to draw maps for a partisan, political advantage seems like it has become easier.
How Else Can We Stop Gerrymandering?
Living in a gerrymandered district likely means lawmakers are trying to belittle votes in the opposition. As The Guardian put simply, “Voters don’t pick their politicians. Politicians pick their voters.”
Although the Supreme Court has barred federal courts from getting involved in these partisan gerrymandering cases, there are still many state constitutions which prohibit the state from drawing districts in such a way. Take the case of Pennsylvania mentioned earlier.
The Pennsylvania state constitution makes partisan gerrymandering illegal and, since those districts consistently leaning 13–5 for the Republicans had been found to be partisan, the state’s Supreme Court struck down the maps. This meant that by the 2018 mid-term elections a new map had to have been put in place.
By redrawing the maps in a politically fair manner, more seats were likely to flip to the Democrats and several others would finally become competitive.
Now, Pennsylvania has gone from being split 13–5 to be even at 9–9 Republicans and Democrats for U.S. House seats. Challenging at the state level is the best path forward now to ensure districts are drawn fairly.
Republicans are even expecting Democrats to challenge state maps across the nation in a sweeping attempt to change redistricting practices. In an interview with Politico, Jason Torchinsky, general counsel for the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said:
“It’s clear, and Democrats have already signaled this, that they’re going to be taking these cases to state courts. That opens a Pandora’s box at the state level.”
It’s not going to be a fun fight. It’s not going to be an exciting fight. It’s mostly going to be pretty boring — but it is one of the most important fights Americans have as we head into the next Census and redistricting years. What’s at stake is equal, fair representation for all Americans in their government.
Gerrymandering is the tool politicians use to dilute Americans’ voices while giving the illusion of democracy. It must be admitted that political biases will always be present to an extent, but mitigating its effect is necessary if we are to retain any faith in our representatives. We are the only major democracy to do such a practice so blatantly and it’s time we fix that.
Gerrymandering is the opposite of democratic, yet, for now, is a hallmark of American democracy.