Gerrymandering: How It Harmed Our Democracy
I live in North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, though a better name for it might be the Ribbon of Shame. It’s one of the country’s most gerrymandered districts, and it’s said it looks more like a ketchup spill than a span of geography where people in a region elect their U.S. Congressional Representative. District Twelve is an ugly representation of the brazen reaches politicians will take to protect their power. Take a look at Congressional maps across the country, and you’ll see districts with wildly irregular shapes, odd tendrils and jagged perimeters. They are a testament to the gall of politicians to protect their own jobs. Look closer and you’ll see the damage gerrymandering is doing to our Democracy.
Gerrymandering is the dividing of a state or county into election districts to benefit the political party in power. Gerrymandering ensures one political party a majority in as many districts as possible where they’ll be virtually guaranteed to win that election. At the same time, the party in power draws other districts to concentrate the voting strength of the opposing party into as few districts as possible. Gerrymandering keeps political parties in power longer, and it keeps individual politicians holding power in districts where a majority of voters might disagree with their elected official’s views. Re-election for incumbent politicians becomes a sure thing. Gerrymandering has resulted in increased Congressional partisanship and a decline in voter turnout. Gerrymandering has rigged our elections and keeps citizens from having a voice in democracy. Gerrymandering has harmed the U.S. Democracy.
Gerrymandering may seem like a modern concept, especially given how polarized our country has become over the past thirty-five years, but gerrymandering is not new to American politics. In 1812 Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan designed to ensure Democratic-Republican control over the legislature. (Elkanah Tisdale, Boston Gazette) The Boston Gazette coined the term Gerrymander after one of the new political districts resembled a salamander, combining the amphibian’s look with Gov. Gerry’s name. (Craig Benzine, Crash Course) Wondering if you vote in a gerrymandered district? Does it look like a Rorschach ink blot, an octopus or even a creek-dwelling amphibian?
In more modern times, the practice of gerrymandering has gained its own vocabulary, with partisan districts achieved by packing, cracking or stacking to ensure that the majority party holds more districts than the minority party. Packing a political district is when the majority party puts its supporters into as many districts as possible while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible to reduce its political power. Cracking is the dividing of a political district into several new political districts. These new political districts hold fewer minority citizens in each political district than a single political district would alone. Stacking is similar to packing, although the goal of stacking is to redraw political districts to concentrate the voting strength of a group to increase its political power. (Alex Tabarrok, George Mason University)
You might think that politics can be ugly, and no one said it had to be fair. But gerrymandering continues to have a destructive impact on our democracy. Consider this example from North Carolina. In 2014, fifty-one percent of North Carolinians voted for a Democrat to represent them in the U. S. House of Representatives. Since North Carolina has thirteen Congressional districts, you might assume that the seats were fairly evenly split, with Democrats winning six or maybe seven on the strength of fifty-one percent of the vote. Instead, Republican Congressional candidates won nine of the thirteen seats. (David Savage, LA Times) Winning nine out of thirteen seats means Republican won sixty-nine percent of the seats with forty-nine percent of the vote. If the district had been more fairly drawn the winning candidates would have been seven Democrats and six Republicans, a more representative spread.
Such lop-sided outcomes can lead to voters to feel as if the election outcome doesn’t express the true will of the people. Voter apathy grows as it seems politicians and party elders choose their voters when they draw up these gerrymandered districts rather than voters choosing their elected representatives. “The most basic requirement of a true democracy is that citizens have the ability to choose their elected leaders by voting. Instead, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their citizens. Giving legislators power over drawing their own districts and congressional maps creates a conflict of interest that turns democracy on its head.” (Dan Vicuña, Common Cause) Gerrymandering has negatively impacted election turnouts, which only strengthens the grasp that these gerrymandered districts have over the citizens of these districts.
Gerrymandering has contributed to a rise in partisanship in the U.S. House of Representatives. When political districts are drawn to protect the majority party then that party has a vested interest in creating political districts that are more partisan to ensure re-election. This in turn contributes to which political party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. (Linda Wertheimer, NPR) Citizens often feel that the elections have been rigged. As a result, fewer people care about what happens in politics because people believe that they are unable to change government by voting. With that sentiment so common, voter turnout decreases. This is a serious threat to our democracy. (Jordan Fabian, The Hill)
From 1958 to 1982 voter turnout in midterm elections was steady with about forty percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls. Then in 1982 party unity votes (percentage of the total number of votes that voted how party leadership instructed) surpassed voter turnout. Congressional representatives were now voting more in line with their party than any other time in recent history. As a result, voter turnout decreased significantly from forty-two percent in 1982 to thirty-five percent in 2014. During the same period of time the percentage of members in the U.S. House of Representatives who voted along party lines grew from thirty-six percent to a whopping seventy-two percent. As a result, the U.S. House of Representatives became more partisan due to the increasing numbers of districts that had been gerrymandered after the 1980 Census.
California Democrats took advantage of the 1980 Census to gerrymander districts in favor their party. With Democratic Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown in office a redrawing of political districts for Democrats looked favorable. Democrats drew new political districts under the leadership of then-U.S. House of Representative Phillip Burton (D-CA). The new political districts looked blatantly un-favorable to Republicans. So California Republicans sued to block these new political districts from going into effect. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Assembly v. Deukmejian 1982 that the 1980 political districts could be used in the midterm elections of 1982. This led to a favorable outcome for Democrats, who won twenty-eight of the forty-five districts, although Democrats had only fifty-one percent of the popular vote. (Michael McDonald & Robin Best, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.) California was not alone as the only state to gerrymander districts after the 1980 Census. This rise of mass gerrymandering has caused the percentage of voter turnout to be lower than the percentage of party unity votes in the U.S. House of Representative, a trend which would not be broken until the midterm elections of 2010. Although the trend has only been broken by one one hundredth of a percent. This trend would return during the midterm elections of 2014 with thirty-five percent of eligible voters turning out to vote, the lowest percentage of voter turnout since World War II. (Brian Klaas, Washington Post) At the same time, seventy-two percent of votes cast in the U.S. House of Representative favored party unity. Partisan gerrymandering has had a significant impact on voter turnout in U.S. elections.
Both Democrats and Republicans across the country have engaged in gerrymandering. Our democracy needs for both sides to recognize the harm it’s doing and work together to come up with solutions to make it stop. Some communities have tried to find a solution to this problem. But there is simply a lack of political will to change the current process. As even politicians in the minority party will admit, gerrymandering ensures job security when no other candidates are willing to run because they know that the deck is stacked against them in terms of winning.
The most obvious solution to the problem of gerrymandering it to take the process of drawing districts out of the hands of those who have already proved that they can’t be trusted to do the job with the best interests of voters in mind. A computer program could be assigned the job of redrawing political districts every ten years after Census data has been collected. This computer program would be able to factor in all legal requirements, such as having the same population in each district to ensure that each citizen has an equal say, compactness, and other legally required characteristics. Iowa’s Independent Legislative Services Agency already utilizes this method when drawing new political districts. By factoring in population and avoiding splitting counties in half as required by law, Iowa is able to draw political districts that ensure all Iowans have an equal opportunity at electing a candidate who represents their interest. (J.F., The Economist)
Another solution to gerrymandering is an Independent Redistricting Commission. An Independent Redistricting Commission draws up new political districts every 10 years after the Census has been conducted, then presents these maps to be voted on by representatives with a simple yea or nay vote. This process ensures that one party cannot take control of the House of Representatives without having to face the consequences in November. Florida has recently passed laws to ensure that state legislators take into account partisan fairness when drawing up new political districts, although it has yet to be seen how easily this standard can be enforced in the court system. (Thomas Mann, Time Magazine) Arizona has utilized the Independent Redistricting Commission since its forming through a ballot initiative in 2000. Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission is comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans including a chairperson who is required by law not to be a member of either party. (Samantha Lachman, Huffington Post)
For any of these solutions to be effective at stopping gerrymandering, a requirement for transparency is needed. Transparency roots out controversy. Only when citizens have trust in the process that draws these districts will there be a decrease in voter apathy. Although none of these solutions is perfect, all are better than the current process of legislators and party elders drawing political districts in back door meetings out of the public’s view; that favor their own interests over the citizens that they are supposed to represent.
Since political power shifts between parties most everywhere, why haven’t both sides yet agreed that the practice of gerrymandering hurts them as often as it helps them? Gerrymandering might seem like a simple problem, but fixing it is not. Who sets the standards for determining whether a political district has been fairly drawn? Gerrymandering has been ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court when a district is intentionally drawn to disenfranchise a group in the minority from possibly being able to elect a candidate who represents that minority. Gerrymandering until recently has had many safe guards to prevent racial minority groups from being discriminated against.
Recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 5-to-4 decision that states no longer have to follow Proposition Five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Proposition Five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required that southern states have their re-districting plans reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice before the new political districts can be implemented. (Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones, The Atlantic). These requirements within the Voting Rights Act came about because of the ugly history of politicians trying to disenfranchise African American voters through Jim Crow Laws. The U.S. Supreme Court took the position in its majority opinion that the law was no longer relevant because the evidence used to justify the law’s creation was not current. This decision has opened the door to other voting measures like restrictions on early voting, same day registration, and Voter ID laws which target minorities. Gerrymandering has been allowed to go on unchecked as a result of this ruling. (Adam Liptak, New York Times)
In a recent 2–1 United States District court ruling Texas’s 2011 redistricting plan was ruled illegal. Based on the grounds that the districts had been drawn to disenfranchise Hispanic citizens by packing Hispanic votes into as few district as possible. Using race as a factor in drawing political district has been ruled by the courts multiple times as a violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. (David Lee, Courthouse News) Although in cases where districts have been Gerrymandered by political affiliation, courts have to walk a fine line when it comes to deciding if a political district has been illegally gerrymandered. Currently there is no clear legal definition of what constitutes a political Gerrymandering. As a result, the courts have been unable to rule in favor of plaintiffs who sue on the grounds that Gerrymandering is unconstitutional and illegal. This is why having laws to regulate political redistricting is so important.
When drawing new political districts legislators are required by law to consider many factors. In 1962, the United States Supreme Court ruled in (Baker v. Carr 1962) that political districts must be drawn to have about the same number of citizens in each district. This ensures that the legal principle of one person, one vote is maintained so that no matter where a person votes their vote counts equally as someone in a completely different area. (Baker v. Carr 1962, Cornell University Law School) Legislators must also account for geographic compactness. This argument is based on the idea that people who live close together are more likely to share a common demography, class, culture, economic-status, etc. (Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post) Citizens who share common characteristics are more likely in theory to elect someone who will focus on their concerns.
As citizens, we need to cry foul when these elected officials are re-elected without the will of the people. Together as people of the United States of America it is on us to break up these gerrymandered districts that destroy democracy. To keep democracy moving forwards not backwards.
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