The Looming Perils of Gerrymandering
How Politicians Quietly Kill Competitive Elections and Put Democracy at Risk
This is Civic Way’s fourth essay on state and local elections. In this essay, we tackle the issue of partisan gerrymandering. In our last essay, we highlighted omnibus election bills enacted by Florida, Georgia and Texas. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving government agencies across the US.
Redistricting is required every ten years, but partisan gerrymandering has become a cynical tool to hijack the redistricting process, indulge politicians and make elections less competitive
Extreme gerrymandering, like packing and cracking, enables politicians to pick their own voters and evade competitive elections, leaving voters to choose among bad candidates and worse ideas
Politicians use gerrymandering because they can, because voters don’t care and because it works
Gerrymandering dismantles or dilutes communities of interest, like cities and minority groups, and poisons our politics
The Ugly Legacy of Gerrymandering
Americans care about a lot of things, but not gerrymandering. Afterall, why should we care? It only occurs once a decade, typically behind closed doors. It’s been with us since the beginning, a cute little game that politicians play. Even the most severely-gerrymandered maps look harmless if not comical (like Elbridge Gerry’s salamander-shaped district that started it all in 1812).
However, gerrymandering is no longer a curious historical anomaly. Sophisticated new technology has made it a lethal political weapon. Political operatives use it to hijack what should be a fair, data-driven democratic process. It enables politicians to choose their voters, elude competitive elections and duck accountability. It yields weird districts and weird politicians. It makes our politics more extreme. It sullies our democracy.
We can and should end extreme partisan gerrymandering. Stop politicians from picking their voters. Tell them what we want—competitive elections, representative districts and fair elections. In most states, we can amend our constitutions to establish impartial redistricting processes. In some states, citizens have already done so. If competition is a good thing, why not demand it for our elections?
Redistricting is Required, but Gerrymandering is Not
Every ten years, after the federal census is completed, the states redraw their maps for congressional and state legislative districts. The US Constitution does not mention districts, but Article I, Section 2 requires the apportionment of congressional representatives to states based on population.
In 1964, the US Supreme Court ruled that congressional and state legislative districts must fairly reflect the latest federal census. For example, states (except those with one congressional district) must draw congressional districts with about the same number of people (711,000 after the 2010 census and about 761,000 after the 2020 census). The goal is to ensure that legislators represent relatively equal numbers of citizens.
While they share some similarities, the states use a wide range of redistricting methods. A growing number use objective redistricting criteria and independent redistricting commissions. Some states, like Ohio, use hybrid processes that mirror the commission approach, but enable politicians to retain control. A few states assign the role to independent agencies or staff.
However, most states continue to allow their politicians to redraw district maps. What this really means is the party that controls the levers of state government at the time the federal census is completed. In most states, the legislature oversees redistricting, but some require the involvement of other officials like the governor.
The Mysteries of Gerrymandering
Not all gerrymandering is deliberate or harmful. However, extreme partisan gerrymandering is both. There are two types of extreme partisan gerrymandering—packing and cracking.
Packing entails cramming more of the other party’s voters into one district to minimize their influence in other districts. One example is the creation of urban districts with overwhelming concentrations of minority voters (i.e., minority-majority districts). Cracking involves splitting the other party’s voters into multiple districts to minimize their influence. In Texas, for example, the major cities (all Democratic) have been split into multiple districts to combine with rural voters in outlying areas and thereby generate more Republican districts.
Gerrymandering often (but not always) produces oddly-shaped districts, sometimes traversing across miles of unrelated urban, suburban and rural areas. A few glaring examples of distorted congressional districts include Ohio's "snake by the lake" 9th District, Maryland’s mangled 3rd District, New Orleans’ packed majority-minority 2nd District, Houston’s meandering 2nd District (Dan Crenshaw) and Ohio’s duck-like 4th District (Jim Jordan).
Focusing too much on geometry can mislead. Irregular districts can be a function of geography. Oddly-configured districts may unite communities of interest (e.g., Illinois’ 4th Congressional District). Uncompetitive districts may be a result of demographic sorting rather than partisan gerrymandering. To reform redistricting, we must carefully distinguish malevolent from benign gerrymandering.
The Powerful Allure of Gerrymandering
Why are politicians so addicted to gerrymandering? Partly because they have the power to use it (in most states). Partly because they know they won’t pay a political price for committing what they know is an overtly partisan act. Partly because gerrymandering can be so damn efficient. Without the hassle of closely-fought elections, or the risks of a public process, a party can quietly solidify their grip on power by creating more favorable districts. Their only risk is litigation, a risk greatly reduced by the current US Supreme Court.
The temptation of gerrymandering is irresistible for another reason. It works. As our politics have become more nationalized, the pressures on state politicians to manipulate legislative maps have heightened (especially for politicians who want to hang on). In 2020, Democrats lost over a dozen US House seats while winning 4.7 million more votes than Republicans nationwide. In 2022, by picking up a handful of seats, Republicans can regain control of the US House and stop the Biden presidency in its tracks.
In states where one party runs the redistricting process, the pressure to gerrymander districts is intense. In large states, like Florida, New York, North Carolina and Texas, unbearable. Statewide races aren’t affected, but new legislative maps can dilute the minority party’s votes, increase Congressional seats for the majority party and solidify the majority party’s hold on the state legislature, possibly for a decade.
Gerrymandering enjoys a long political tradition. Throughout our history, the politicians with the greatest power have tapped gerrymandering’s potential, usually for their party, but sometimes for a friend. After the 1980 census, the powerful Democratic Congressman Phillip Burton redrew California’s state legislative districts hoping to make Republicans a permanent minority. In 1983, after Burton’s death, the Democratic state legislature returned the favor. They redrew Burton’s congressional district to help his widow retain the seat (now represented by Nancy Pelosi).
Gerrymandering and Urban Issues
Gerrymandering can muffle communities of interest. Think about cities. Republican lawmakers have cracked many cities (e.g., Asheville, Athens and Columbus) into smaller slices to be spread into adjacent conservative areas. Democratic lawmakers have followed suit in Republican areas like Naperville. Such manipulation produces partisan advantages, but also weakens the political clout of urban areas.
Texas offers the most glaring example. Republican legislators there have divided five of the state’s largest cities—Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio—into multiple congressional districts. By doing so, most of the US Representatives from these areas represent predominately suburban or rural interests. Austin, with nearly one million residents, has six congressional districts, but only one urban district. But that district represents a small share of Austin’s population and includes San Antonio 80 miles away.
Gerrymandering and Minority Representation
Gerrymandering also is used to pack communities of interest. Packing minority votes into one district can create legacy districts for minority politicians but also dilute their statewide influence. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, coupled with the Supreme Court’s 1986 Thornburg v. Gingles decision, forced states to create majority-minority districts (i.e., districts where non-Hispanic whites represent a minority of the voting-age population).
As always, the law of unintended consequences reared its head. Concentrating minority voters in one district can diminish their influence elsewhere. In 1992, 38 African American Representatives were elected, but few from majority districts. In fact, until 2018, the share of African American Congressmen from majority districts rarely surpassed five percent. This makes it much easier for candidates in majority districts to ignore the concerns of minority voters.
Can’t African American candidates win competitive majority districts? In 2018, for instance, Americans elected 53 African Americans to the US House, of which nearly 20 percent won in majority districts (i.e., districts where non-Hispanic whites represent most of the voting-age population). Eight of the nine new African American Representatives won in heavily majority districts (average 70 percent white).
We know that white voters will support minority candidates. What about Barack Obama and Kamala Harris? Winners like Patrick of Massachusetts, Scott of South Carolina, Booker in New Jersey, Warnock of Georgia? Competitive candidates like Abrams in Georgia and Gillum in Florida? Isn’t it time to give more minority candidates an opportunity to compete in majority districts?
The Poisoning of Our Politics
In an era of rising political extremism and crippling political paralysis, extreme gerrymandering exacerbates partisan tensions. The most recent example was the flight of Democratic legislators from Texas to prevent or at least delay the passage of the proposed omnibus election bill.
This toxicity is poisoning our politics across state capitols, even in state courts. With the US Supreme Court deferring to state courts on gerrymandering, the smart partisan money is on state supreme courts. One path is to increase partisan control of the judicial nominating process in states like Florida and Massachusetts. Another route is to redraw judicial districts like in Illinois.
A far more traveled road is to spend more money on state judicial races. To make judicial selection more about politics than qualifications. To do whatever it takes to win partisan majorities on state courts (e.g., Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio). How long until gerrymandering turns our state jurists into political hacks?
Gerrymandering’s Threat to Democracy
Armed with 21st Century technology and lots of money, politicians and their operatives have made gerrymandering an existential threat to democracy. Unless we end it, gerrymandering will ultimately make competitive elections extinct.
How does extreme partisan gerrymandering threaten democracy?
It makes our elected officials less representative. By subverting the “one person, one vote” principle, it turns one of democracy’s strongest assets into a fatal flaw. Through unethical and surreptitious means, it dilutes some votes, inflates others and unduly strengthens one party at the expense of the other. It unfairly benefits the dominant party in those states where they control redistricting. Today, nearly 60 million Americans live in states where one or both legislative chambers are controlled by the party with the fewest statewide votes.
Gerrymandering makes politics more extreme. It produces more one-party districts. The more one-dimensional a district, the more pivotal the primary election. Since the most ideological voters dominate the primaries, one-party districts produce more extreme candidates. As a result, we see more extreme politicians. And with this extremism comes more polarization and paralysis.
Ultimately, gerrymandering increases voter apathy. When more voters (especially independents and members of the minority party) conclude that the general election doesn’t matter, voter turnout suffers. An estimated 40 percent of legislators face no general election competition. Do we really expect voters to show up anyway?
Even politicians who once supported gerrymandering are having second thoughts. Maryland’s former Governor Martin O'Malley (D), a one-time presidential candidate who led that state's egregious 2011 gerrymandering effort now supports redistricting reforms. Ohio’s former Governor John Kasich (R), another one-time presidential candidate—and a supporter of his state’s 2011 partisan gerrymandering, has lamented, "partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional [and] harming our republican government..."