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From 2012 to 2016, more than 50 percent of voters in Michigan cast their ballots for Democratic candidates, yet Republican candidates held an advantage at every level of government. Democrats received just 31 percent of the seats in the Michigan Senate, 44 percent of the seats in the Michigan House of Representatives, and 35 percent of the seats in Michigan’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. Similar stories played out in Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina, and countless other states.
This example is the result of gerrymandering. States redraw their electoral districts every 10 years using data from the U.S. Census to account for population changes. The problem occurs when state legislatures draw district lines to give one political party an advantage, rather than for equal political representation of all constituents.
Gerrymandering has existed since America’s founding, before the Constitution was written. One of the earliest instances was when Patrick Henry, a Founding Father, drew Virginia’s first congressional map in a way that prevented James Madison from winning a seat. The term “gerrymandering” was officially coined in 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry drew bizarrely shaped electoral districts to ensure his political party would be the majority party in the state legislature. Opponents were angered and thought one of the electoral districts resembled a salamander, thus nicknaming the district “gerrymander.”
Today, gerrymandering operates on a much larger scale. For example, in Wisconsin, which is Republican-controlled, the new redistricting plan created new legislative districts that would allow the Republican party to retain a majority in the State Assembly under any election outcome. Their attempt to control the State Assembly was successful, which could be seen in 2012, 2014, and 2016. IThey won less than 50 percent of the vote but won 60 out of the 99 total seats in 2012. Republicans won 52 percent of the vote in both 2014 and 2016 but won 63 seats in 2014 and 64 in 2016. Republicans are not the only beneficiaries of gerrymandering. For instance, in Maryland, Democrats drew a new congressional redistricting map to increase their advantage in the U.S. House and got rid of one of the Republican-controlled congressional districts.
In a democracy, voters are supposed to choose their elected officials to accurately represent their voters. Due to partisan gerrymandering, this system is not the case, allowing state legislatures to enact policies that do not reflect what voters want. For example, in North Carolina, a heavily gerrymandered state, a poll conducted in 2013 found that 72 percent of North Carolina residents supported the expansion of Medicaid. Despite this popularity, legislators approved a measure that prevented the state from expanding Medicaid, making affordable health care insurance inaccessible to more than 300 thousand North Carolinians. Additionally, in Ohio, another heavily gerrymandered state, 75 percent of residents wanted an increase in the minimum wage, according to a poll conducted in 2016. However, their legislature passed a bill that prohibited local governments from raising the minimum wage.
In a country where politics are incredibly polarizing and divisive right now, a stance against gerrymandering might be one of the few things uniting us. A bipartisan survey conducted by Democratic researcher Celinda Lake and Republican analyst Ashlee Rich Stephenson found that 71 percent of all Americans want the Supreme Court to create a standard that ends partisan gerrymandering. This issue cuts across party lines with support from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
To prevent and end gerrymandering, states should consider implementing independent redistricting commissions in which a politically nonpartisan or bipartisan panel of people is given the responsibility of redrawing district lines. These commissions should exclude all incumbents, and their general structure should prevent registered members of any one political party from having more influence than others on the redistricting process.
However, the implementation of these commissions and ensuring their bipartisanship are not necessarily easy. Currently, eight states use a commission system that they claim is bipartisan. In almost all of these states, politicians are still the ones who hold most of the power over districts. For example, in Pennsylvania, two legislative leaders from each party get to pick a member of the commission and then try to agree on a fifth member. If they fail to pick a member together, the fifth member is chosen by the state’s Supreme Court, which is also politicized. The implementation of independent redistricting commissions will help reduce the political influence that dominates the redistricting process today, allowing voters to choose their elected officials rather than the officials choosing their voters.
Though ending gerrymandering has bipartisan support, the road to ending it will not be easy. The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts cannot judge if extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution, which means federal courts cannot strike down redistricting maps for giving a particular party an advantage or disadvantage in elections, allowing state legislatures to easily create gerrymandered voting maps.
Secondly, the For the People Act, which seeks to ban partisan gerrymandering, change campaign finance laws, require states to use independent commissions to draw electoral district lines, and more, has not been passed by the Senate. Senate Republicans blocked the bill using a legislative filibuster, which is an attempt to delay or block a vote on a particular piece of legislation. When the filibuster is invoked, 60 members of the Senate need to vote to open floor debate, and 60 votes are required to end debate and vote on the bill. In this case, only 50 Senators voted to debate the bill, meaning that For the People Act was not debated and thus, not voted on. While federal courts can no longer prevent even the most gerrymandered redistricting maps, Congress has the power to do so. It is also up to constituents to put pressure on their legislators, especially those who do not support the For the People Act, and make sure their elected officials are accountable to their voters.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, the United States government must be “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” A government whose elections and election results are heavily influenced by partisan legislatures and gerrymandering is simply not a government that can be of, by, and for the people. The danger gerrymandering poses to both democracy and the American people needs to be acknowledged, and action must be taken to ensure that democracy still serves the interests of its citizens.