Dividing States

Gerrymandering in South Carolina, where, in 2010, the Republican state legislature created 13 bizarrely shaped Congressional districts to maximize their electoral success

by Lara Choy

Photo Credit: Dominique5340

In March 1812, Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts, reluctantly signed a modest proposal that would fundamentally change the American electoral system. His fellow Democratic-Republican politicians, seeking an advantage in the next election, presented a plan to redraw the state’s congressional districts in their favour and create a revised electoral map. Once the plans were approved and announced, the press and Gerry’s opponents were quick to mock the new map’s oddly-shaped districts. After the Boston Centinel published a cartoon comparing one district’s shape to a salamander, the term “gerrymander” was born. Even though the governor was defeated just two years later, his namesake and legacy persists into 2020. 

Like many things, gerrymandering is a fairly simple concept that can become more complex over time; at its simplest, it refers to the practice of modifying electoral district boundaries to gain a political advantage. Although gerrymandering is not exclusively American, many examples of heavily gerrymandered areas are found in the United States. In the US, each of the fifty states are divided into congressional districts corresponding to said state’s membership in the House of Representatives. Every ten years, after the census is released, the majority party in each state’s legislature redraws the districts’ boundaries to accommodate roughly equal populations to ensure better voter representation. However, electoral maps are often utilised by the ruling party to ensure future success, which would result in strangely shaped districts encompassing bits and pieces of advantageous areas. One small change to a district’s boundaries and therefore, voter makeup, can mean the difference between victory and defeat: under the winner-take-all voting system, a party with 50.1% of the vote in a certain area receives 100% of the representation at the federal level. When deployed, gerrymandering often distributes votes in the most disadvantaged districts to create tighter races. 

Gerrymandering’s effects are strongly felt by the rival party and the voters. In 2018, the Democrats received approximately 50 percent of the North Carolina statewide vote with their best results in many election cycles, and seven-point overperformance from the previous election. Logically, this means that the party should have earned about half of the state’s federal representation, however, North Carolina is a  notoriously gerrymandered state due to an aggressive Republican state legislature. Thus, the House majority remained the same: ten Republican seats to merely three Democratic states. Under the current system, the location of votes significantly outweighs the pure numbers. 

Both parties have been accused of gerrymandering, but it affects Democrats more often than Republicans, and that does not look like it will change in the near future: in the 2020 election, the latter party won 55 out of 99 state legislative chambers. In 2018, the Center for American Progress found that gerrymandering shifted an average of 59 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections, most often in favour of Republicans who ordinarily would not have been elected according to the polls and demographics. In heavily gerrymandered states, a party does not need to win a simple majority as much as they need to secure votes in the right places. 

Some groups feel the effects of gerrymandering more keenly than others. Often, districts are divided to dilute the voting power of people of colour, even if that means completely fracturing majority-minority communities. On the other hand, some legislatures draw districts so that a particular group’s vote is concentrated into one district so they have fewer representatives in Congress. Since Black and Latino Americans already face increased barriers to voting in the first place, gerrymandering and the larger electoral process generally favours wealthy, white Americans. As a result, only a small margin of these populations are represented and heard. 

The practice of gerrymandering effectively disenfranchises millions of American voters every two years. Instead of representing the political views and interests of the entire population, Congressional districts across the country are manipulated so that a certain party can win the most areas, deserved or not. The increasing effect of gerrymandering on the electoral process reflects the current state of political polarization in the United States. Congressional districts should not act as tools for parties to overtake their opponents. Under a more just system, each and every voter would receive the fair representation that he or she deserves. 

The American people deserve better than an outdated, poorly-functioning, redistricting practice established over two hundred years ago. Partisan gerrymandering must go.

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