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Gerrymandering Is Evil
“The Gerry-Mander,” the political cartoon that led to the coining of the term. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by the Massachusetts Legislature to favor the incumbent party candidates of Gov. Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists in 1812.Photo credit: Illustration by WhoWhatWhy from Elkanah Tisdale / Wikimedia and LoggaWiggler / Pixabay.

It helps fill the swamp.

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Gerrymandering is a stain on US democracy that has tainted countless elections — both on the federal and state level. Since Republicans are currently the main offenders, this despicable practice has resulted in a rightwards shift in many states and in the country as a whole.

However, to be fair, among the many crimes against democracy that are being committed in the US every day, gerrymandering stands out because both parties are guilty of it.

When given the chance, Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. However, they simply haven’t had as many opportunities to rig the electoral maps in recent years as the GOP has.

Right now, for example, Republican-controlled legislatures are responsible for drawing a whopping 191 congressional districts, almost four times as many as the Democrats’ 49.

As a result of these often extreme gerrymanders, it is much easier for the GOP to win the House of Representatives. Granted, that isn’t doing them much good these days, but if they were a functioning party, they would have an outsize influence that does not fairly reflect the will of the people.

The impact of gerrymandering on the states themselves is even more pronounced. Let’s look at two of the worst offenders — Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Even worse, the negative effects of gerrymandering in both states are compounded because North Carolina and Wisconsin lawmakers have used their ill-gotten majorities to pass various voter suppression laws in recent years, thereby trying to cherry-pick their own voters even more.

Both are deeply purple states. Recent presidential elections there have been very close. In 2020, for example, Trump narrowly won the Tarheel State while President Joe Biden eked out a victory in the Badger State. In addition, both have Democratic governors.

Still, even though they are both so closely divided, as things stand right now Republicans are expected to win 16-17 out of their combined 22 congressional seats.

In addition, Wisconsin and North Carolina also have Republican supermajorities in their state legislatures. That’s not because the voters there overwhelmingly chose GOP lawmakers; it’s because GOP lawmakers chose their voters.

Therefore, instead of having to find compromises as they would in closely divided legislatures, Republicans are able to ram through extreme laws that are unpopular with voters.

Even worse, the negative effects of gerrymandering in both states are compounded because North Carolina and Wisconsin lawmakers have used their ill-gotten majorities to pass various voter suppression laws in recent years, thereby trying to cherry-pick their own voters even more.

Yet, somehow, this affront to democracy is allowed to continue.

Political and Racial Gerrymanders

Generally, we distinguish between two types of gerrymanders: political and racial. It’s a distinction without much of a difference. Racial gerrymanders are also political in nature since they aim to dilute the voting power of minorities.

Historically, the Supreme Court has done nothing to prevent political gerrymanders, i.e., the efforts of one party to increase its power by redrawing district lines in its favor.

While the justices may have recognized that the practice is repugnant and possibly unconstitutional, they just kinda shrugged and concluded there was little they could do about it.

In other words, absent a “fair” remedy, the Supreme Court just allowed everybody to do what they wanted.

It’s a bit different in the case of racial gerrymanders, which have been deemed unconstitutional. However, although the high court recently intervened to force Alabama’s Republicans to redraw their racist congressional map, it has done more to weaken voting rights than strengthen them.

That includes the elimination of the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. This decision in Shelby County v. Holder allowed states with a history of discrimination to change their voting laws without federal approval.

An Abomination of Democracy

In any case, the political vs. racial distinction shouldn’t matter. Gerrymanders are a scourge regardless of the motivation behind them, and no participant in a democracy should ever support them.

However, that’s not what is happening in the US, where the practice is getting worse because power trumps principle.

In recent years, especially since Republicans seized control of many state legislatures in the census year of 2010, gerrymanders have been super-weaponized.

That has had a devastating effect on politics in the US.

On the one hand, this despicable practice allows parties that barely won a majority of the votes (or, in the case of Wisconsin, failed to win such a majority at all) to pass a radical agenda unsupported by the population in their states.

On the other hand, gerrymanders have led to a radicalization of lawmakers themselves.

As the number of “safe” districts in many states increases, general elections become effectively meaningless. As a result, the people who will eventually represent a district are now largely chosen in primaries. And, because that’s where extremists have an edge over more moderate candidates, a greater share of them finds their way to Congress or state legislatures.

And next thing you know, the majority of House Republicans is supporting a coup.

The Problem With ‘Solving’ Gerrymandering

So how do you fix gerrymandering? Ideally, the Supreme Court would step in and declare it unconstitutional. However, since that isn’t happening, this is among the most difficult problems to address.

Since the party in the majority directly benefits from gerrymandering, there is no incentive for it to ever address it. At the same time, these majorities become ever more entrenched, so it is also more difficult for voters to remove the offending lawmakers from power.

In states where popular referendums are sanctioned by law — typically triggered if supporters submit a specific number of certified signatures on a petition — the redistricting process can be entirely taken out of the hands of partisan lawmakers. In recent years, we have seen that, when voters get to have a say, they support these types of reforms.

And, usually, when the power to draw new electoral maps is taken away from partisan lawmakers and given to independent committees, elections become much fairer. In Michigan, for example, one of the most unfair gerrymanders was turned into one of the fairest maps.

However, for every success story, there are examples of failure, as in Ohio, where gerrymanders are theoretically unconstitutional but the GOP majority is still allowed to draw blatantly self-serving maps.

It would be nice if there were an easier, better solution. Sadly, because the US is not actually a true democracy — especially because of things like gerrymandering or institutions like the Electoral College — change will be slow in the making and require hard work by proponents of truly fair elections.



Author

  • Klaus Marre

    Klaus Marre is a writer, editor, former congressional reporter, and director of the WhoWhatWhy Mentor Apprentice Program. Follow him on Twitter @KlausMarre.

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