What is gerrymandering and why is it such a big deal?

Gerrymandering is the practice of changing voting boundaries to benefit a particular political party. Experts have described it as a way for politicians to choose their voters instead of the voters choosing their politicians.

Critics of this political tactic argue that it is a form of voter suppression, as it targets communities based on ethnicity, race and income to alter their voting power in local elections.

The practice of gerrymandering dates back to the late 1700s. According to historians, one of the founding fathers (Patrick Henry) attempted gerrymandering to prevent the election of James Madison to the House of Representatives.

More than 200 years later, gerrymandering is still a major political issue.

The Difference Between Redistricting and Gerrymandering

Before you review gerrymandering examples, it’s important to understand the difference between redistricting and gerrymandering. While the terms are related, one refers to the action while the other refers to the intent.

Define Redistricting

Redistricting means redrawing electoral districts based on changes in population to make sure each district gets a fair chance at choosing representatives.

Every 10 years, the U.S. census releases a detailed report on population sizes, city and state demographics, among other information. The higher the population of a district, the more representatives it gets.

As a result, the state legislature will typically complete the redistricting process every 10 years to ensure a fair representation of all voters.

Define Gerrymandering

Political gerrymandering occurs when political parties redraw boundaries in an unfair way to give their candidates an advantage over the opposition. This is done using two methods known as “cracking” and “packing.”

When packing a district, those responsible for redrawing the boundaries will “pack” the area with opposition voters to limit their impact and increase the party’s chance of winning surrounding areas.

Cracking refers to the separation of opposition voters in two or several districts to ensure that they will be outnumbered.

The governing party in the state legislature typically decides on the new electoral boundaries. As a result, the party in charge may attempt to maintain its power with gerrymandered districts. Gerrymandered districts are sometimes easy to spot because they take strange, unexpected shapes.

Gerrymandered Districts in the U.S.

According to experts, gerrymandering is most prevalent in states where the Republican party has governing control.

Back in 2010, Republicans gained control of several large state legislatures and handled the redistricting process thereafter. This includes states like Texas, North Carolina and Ohio. Critics say that Republicans tilted the maps in their favor and have maintained power since.

On that same token, experts say the electoral districts in states like California and Illinois show Democratic gerrymandering at play.

The Link between Gerrymandering and Voter Suppression

Voter suppression is a political strategy that usually targets minorities, such as African Americans, voters with disabilities, students and more.

As the name implies, voter suppression works to lower the pool of voters who might vote for a certain candidate or proposition. Lawmakers typically accomplish this by making voting difficult, inconvenient or intimidating for members of certain communities. This can take on many forms, including limited early voting options and strict voter ID requirements.

For many, gerrymandering is also a form of voter suppression. It attempts to dilute voter voices and representation to unfairly inflate one party’s power.

The Fight Against Gerrymandering

Voters and nonpartisan organizations are fighting back against socio-economic and racial gerrymandering. To a certain extent, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 protects voters against racial gerrymandering.

However, the law is not foolproof.

States like Virginia have had to redraw their district maps after having gerrymandered districts based to suppress voters of color. Several states are discussing instituting stricter anti-gerrymandering laws to prevent politicians from taking advantage of the congressional redistricting process.

Nonpartisan organizations, such as Common Cause, have suggested hiring independent redistricting commissions who can perform the task without bias. California and Arizona already began using this method in the last redistricting process. Most recently, Michigan’s electorate agreed to this proposal in 2018.

However, Republicans in Michigan filed a lawsuit in response to the commission vote, stating that it is unconstitutional to prevent them from participating in the redistricting process.

Over the years, Supreme Court gerrymandering cases have gained national attention. For SCOTUS gerrymandering has always been difficult to solve in the court system, as there is no clear standard to refer to and not always an easy way to tell if a district has been gerrymandered.

In June of 2019, SCOTUS ruled in a 5-4 decision that states must govern themselves when it comes to partisan gerrymandering. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the federal court cannot settle on one answer for what’s acceptable versus unacceptable.

This was considered a victory for Republicans. However, it creates a roadblock for activists who are currently attempting to outlaw partisan gerrymandering altogether.

At the state level, some courts have fought back against racial gerrymandering. Most recently, three NC judges threw out the state legislature’s proposed district map, deeming it “unconstitutional.” According to reports, the panel of judges unanimously agreed that the map was an extreme display of  partisan gerrymandering and could not stand.

As a result, the state has a deadline to redraw the maps while following certain guidelines outlined by the panel.

Gerrymandering reform activities see this as a positive turn of events, and a strong precedent to set, following the Supreme Court’s ruling back in 2019.

What can voters do about gerrymandering?

There are several actions that voters can take if they are against gerrymandering. The first is staying updated on state laws and recent cases within their districts. By reviewing their own state’s history with the controversial practice, they can begin to see how gerrymandering may affect them.

The next step is researching alternative redistricting methods supported by reform activities. This can provide a sense of direction when evaluating ways to solve the issue. For instance, the use of an independent third party has garnered a lot of support from reformists.

Finally, it is important to support local legislation and anti-gerrymandering efforts.

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