Partisan Gerrymandering: Literally Shaping the Political Future
“Gerrymandering” is more than just a fun word to say. In fact, gerrymandering―the manipulation of district boundaries to establish a political advantage for a particular party―is the subject of a highly anticipated Supreme Court case, Gill v. Whitford. The Gill case concerns a redistricting plan developed by Republican state legislators in Wisconsin in 2011, notably in secrecy and without input from Democrats. The following year, Democrats won a majority of votes in the biannual State Assembly election, but Republicans captured sixty out of ninety-nine seats. Sound suspicious? To understand the discrepancy, one must separate raw votes from district majorities: as the plaintiffs in Gill v. Whitford argue, Republican legislators spread Democratic households so thinly across the districts that no matter Democrats’ sheer number of votes, they cannot occupy majorities in many districts. “If every single Democrat in my district voted, it wouldn’t change anything,” plaintiff Helen Harris told PBS.
Partisan gerrymandering is not unique to Wisconsin. In 2014, for example, Republican candidates for the State Senate of Michigan won only the slimmest majority of the vote―51 percent―but secured 71 percent of the seats. The same year, 56 percent of votes in a Pennsylvania race favored Republican candidates for the State House of Representatives, but 13 out of 18, or 72 percent, of districts went Republican. Partisan gerrymandering affects federal representation as well: in the US House of Representatives, Ohio’s 2012 elections returned a 75 percent Republican majority to the House despite voters casting only 52 percent of their vote for Republican candidates. Republicans from North Carolina, following the most recent election, won just over half the votes but wound up controlling 77 percent of the state’s seats.
It is true that, in recent years, Republicans are accused more often than Democrats of partisan gerrymandering, but this is hardly unexpected: as the current dominating political party, Republicans are naturally inclined to seek security of their power; and as the minority party, Democrats are naturally inclined to scrutinize the Republicans in their own effort to regain power. Furthermore, when Democrats dominate American politics, they, too, turn to partisan gerrymandering. In 2011, Maryland redrew its district map with the intent that, “all things being legal and equal,” it “would, nonetheless, be more likely to elect more Democrats rather than less,” as Democrat and former governor Martin O’Malley explained in a deposition.
In fact, in many states, lawmakers acknowledge partisan gerrymandering for causing the disparity between popular vote percentages and elected representation. Take David Lewis, a Republican member of the state’s General Assembly, who testified last year that the Assembly would redraw the district map, which was declared illegitimate due to systematic racial bias, specifically “to gain partisan advantage.” Lewis’ brazen statement reveals another controversial aspect of gerrymandering: although racial gerrymandering, which dilutes the political representation of certain races, is illegal, the legal limits of partisan gerrymandering are unclear. In Gill v. Whitford, a district court deemed Wisconsin’s redistricting plan an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, a ruling that the Supreme Court must decide to uphold or overturn. At the very least, many people―including both Democrats and Republicans―hope the outcome will finally assign parameters to the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.
Once a party dominates a state’s legislature, gerrymandering becomes fairly straightforward. Thus, the true question is, how can party leadership guarantee state legislative domination in the first place? REDMAP, or REDistricting Majority Project, was designed for this purpose. REDMAP is a program of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) “dedicated to winning state legislative seats that will have a critical impact on congressional redistricting in 2011,” which ironically contradicts the statement “We fight for a fair process” found on their website’s header. Between 2009 and 2010, the RSLC raised more than $30 million to support Republican candidates for various state government seats across the country in order that, following the 2010 US census, Republicans would wield redistricting power. (Districts are redrawn every decade to account for population shifts based on the most recent census.) REDMAP’s goal was accomplished, and Republicans in 2010 won the majority of state Houses, as best exemplified in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. State-level successes then translated into federal ones, making partisan gerrymandering partly responsible for Republicans’ edge in the US House of Representatives: in 2012, Democrats running for Congress received 1.1 million more votes nationwide, but Republicans sent 33 more members to the House.
By allowing representatives to choose their voters, partisan gerrymandering, whether executed by Republicans or Democrats, denies Americans their accurate representation in government. As Dale Schulz, a former Republican State Senator of Wisconsin, said in an interview with PBS, “We need to put the people first. Give them the opportunity to pick their representatives. That’s what this boils down to. And it’s the difference between being a good partisan as opposed to a good patriot.” Perhaps the best solution to partisan gerrymandering, then, is removing redistricting power from the hands of legislators and assigning the task to independent commissions. Currently, only six states―Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Arizona, and Alaska―use independent commissions, whose members are neither public officials nor current lawmakers, but several others have instituted various measures to weaken, though not completely dissolve, legislators’ ability to manipulate district boundaries. Still, 37 state legislatures have primary control over legislative district lines, and 38 control congressional lines in their state (excluding the five states with only one congressional district). Partisan gerrymandering is a legitimate issue in the United States; it’s time to find a legitimate solution.
Gerrymandering inspires a kind of lyricism in government officials.
In 1981, a California Democrat, having redrawn the boundaries of a congressional district, observed that his effort “curls in and out like a snake.”
An Ohio state representative once regarded his own district as “a seahorse cut up by a boat propeller.”
Maryland’s Third Congressional District reminded a federal judge, more recently, of “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”
From The New Yorker.
Even the word “gerrymander” was coined as a joking description.
In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts, signed a law creating a district so sinuous that, reportedly, the editor of the Boston Gazette saw it as a salamander. “No,” another critic replied, “a gerrymander.” The newspaper’s cartoonist drew it as a “horrid Monster,” depicted at right.
Main Article Sources
“About.” The RSLC Redistricting Majority Project, www.redistrictingmajorityproject.com/?page_id=2.
Daley, Dave. “How Democrats Gerrymandered Their Way to Victory in Maryland.” The Atlantic, 25 Jun. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/how-deep-blue-maryland -shows-redistricting-is-broken/531492/.
“Gerrymandering.” YouTube, uploaded by Last Week Tonight, 9 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/ watch?v=A-4dIImaodQ.
“Gill v. Whitford.” Oyez, 22 Nov. 2017, www.oyez.org/cases/2017/16-1161.
Levitt, Justin. “Who Draws the Lines?” All About Redistricting, redistricting.lls.edu/who.php.
“2012 REDMAP Summary Report.” The RSLC Redistricting Majority Project, 4 Jan. 2013, www.redistrictingmajorityproject.com/?p=646.
Shesol, Jeff. “The Supreme Court Takes Up a Major Gerrymandering Case.” The New Yorker, 3 Oct. 2017, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-supreme-court-takes-up-a-major- gerrymandering-case.
“Supreme Court to Hear Case Testing the Limits of Partisan Gerrymandering.” PBS NewsHour, 1 Oct. 2017, www.pbs.org/newshour/show/testing-limits-partisan-gerrymandering.