“Gerrymander” is a distinctly American word dating back to 1812, and it’s the best-known trick in the electoral game: moving electoral boundaries to exclude or include a specific voter demographic. This leads to very strange district maps that have slithers of land connecting two districts in a way that looks unnatural.
The opposite of gerrymandering is when each congressional district in a state contains roughly the same number of voters and the boundaries are drawn based on natural designations, like city and county lines or natural geographical boundaries. This would result in district maps made up of blobs rather than squiggles. Two examples of clearly gerrymandered district maps are in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and Maryland, drawn by Democrats.
Gerrymandering relies on “packing” and “cracking” votes. With packing, the voters are clustered into a district that will already be won by the opposition party, so the extra votes are wasted on that candidate and have no affect on the outcome. Cracking is when voters for a party are broken up into multiple districts where the opposing candidate can win with a large majority, so again their votes are wasted.
In one academic study, the number of wasted votes contributed to a calculation to find what was termed the “efficiency gap,” which is the percentage of wasted votes. Academics working on combating gerrymandering argue that an efficiency gap should not exceed 7 percent of the total votes cast, and that any number higher than this suggests the state has committed unconstitutional gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is possible because the United States does not have a single independent commission for creating districts. The work is done differently in different states — sometimes independently and sometimes by politically controlled state legislatures.
And while both parties gerrymander, Republicans do it more. The Economist found that “in the 2012 redistricting cycle, the boundaries of 48% of House districts were drawn entirely by Republican officials, compared with just 10% by Democratic ones.” Consequently, Republicans consistently have a “seat bonus” in Congress, whereby they have a greater proportion of seats than is represented by their proportion of votes. Overall, Republicans benefit more from gerrymandering than Democrats.
In particular, the Republican-led REDMAP Project (short for Redistricting Majority Project) set about targeting state legislative seats and governorships in purple states to take control of redistricting and gerrymander those states to their favor. The REDMAP website is explicit about this, explaining, “The party controlling that effort controls the drawing of the maps — shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years.”
In many states, Republicans control the legislatures that draw the maps, the governors who sign off on them, and the judges who rule when they are challenged. This problem will be exacerbated by programs like REDMAP and Trump’s effort to pack the judiciary with highly partisan judges.
2. Making It Difficult for People to Vote
Along with gerrymandering, state legislatures have the power to increase or decrease the number of polling stations, change the times they are open, and generally make it harder for particular groups to vote. North Carolina reduced the number of early voting stations in 2016, which the legislature itself stated resulted in an 8.5 percent reduction in early voting by Black voters, leading to a 6 percent drop in their share of the early vote. Early voting allows people who are poor, work long hours, or have inflexible hours to vote before they go to work. The state also cut back on early voting on Sundays — which was popular with Black churches — foolishly admitting in court that this was because early Sunday voters tend to be disproportionately Black and Democratic.
3. Preventing Felons from Voting
The U.S. criminal justice system has a bias against the Black population, so restricting people convicted of a felony from voting creates a bias against Black voters, who are also more likely to be Democrats. The laws vary by state, from permanently preventing anyone with a felony conviction from voting to preventing only those currently incarcerated. A detailed report on the topic found that “over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised [in this way] compared to 1.8 percent of the non–African American population.” The same report found that 6.1 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the electorate, are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, more than one in five Black voters cannot vote due to a felony.
4. Voter ID Laws
North Carolina also tried to suppress voting by bringing in a strict voter ID law, which was overturned in the courts. Republican states have worked hard to implement stricter ID laws for voters, which a government study suggests may have reduced the Democratic vote in North Carolina by up to 3 percent. Again, this law tends to affect poor, elderly, and Black voters, because they are less likely to have government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license. It is estimated that up to 10 percent of Americans do not have adequate ID to vote under rules that require ID. In Alabama, which has a voter ID law, this is seen mainly to affect the 25 percent of the electorate who are Black. In Wisconsin, where Trump won by 22,748 votes, 200,000 people were prevented from voting due to voter ID laws.
The ID laws are justified as a response to the claim that voter fraud is rampant, a myth amplified by Donald Trump after he lost the popular vote. In reality, voter fraud is very rare in the United States. One report identified 35 cases of voter impersonation out of 800,000,000 votes cast from 2000 to 2014, showing that there is almost no evidence of the types of voter fraud used to justify requiring ID at polling stations. Attempts by Trump and Republicans to bring in measures to combat voter fraud are based on no evidence that it exists and are more likely to be a cover for more targeted voter suppression.
5. Purges of the Voting Register
Ohio recently passed a law removing people from the voting register if they had not voted for two years and did not return a voter card mailed to their registered address. The argument for the law was, again, to reduce voter fraud. Given that there is no evidence at all for such voter fraud, this is unlikely to be the real reason. Critics suggest that the law discriminates against poor people, who may move more frequently due to a lack of rent security, and particularly poor Hispanic voters, who may speak English as a second language and therefore not realize the relevance of the cards. Both groups are more likely to be Democratic voters. The laws were passed by Republican state legislatures and upheld by conservative-leaning judges.