American Horrible Story: Gerrymandering

The legal rigging of elections

In a departure from his 2008 campaign rhetoric of creating bipartisanship in Washington, President Obama plans to dedicate his post-presidency to helping Democrats by taking on redistricting reform. His first step was to pick former attorney general Eric Holder to lead the way.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

According to the White House, the president’s interest in this project comes from his belief that all of the partisanship and gridlock in Congress is from Republicans fearing that they will lose their seats if they choose to compromise with Democrats because of how their districts are drawn.

This partisanship and fear exists largely because of gerrymandering, or the redrawing of congressional seats in order to give a political advantage to one party. Its results are evident in the oddly shaped districts it creates. The term was coined in response to a redistricting plan implemented by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. The plan included a district that resembled a salamander, which many called “Elbridge Gerry’s salamander,” or the “gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering can serve multiple aims. It can create districts that maximize the number of voters who are racial minorities, which can ensure an election where the representatives happen to be minorities themselves. Gerrymandering can also protect incumbents by ensuring that their districts consist of voters that are likely to support them.

The party in control of the redistricting process can try to maximize the number of seats that they can win. To do so, they may try to pack as many voters from the opposite party into as few districts as possible. This is something that Republicans pulled off in 2010 by funding state-level races where the legislatures would have the most control over the redistricting process. They focused on seats they could flip in key legislatures around the country, and managed to flip these state legislatures, gaining control over redistricting. By doing so, Republicans were able to impact the results of their congressional races for the next decade until the 2020 census. This was genius political strategizing on behalf of the Republican Party.

Because of gerrymandering, most districts have become so secure that out of the 435 seats in the House, there are only around 35 true swing districts.

Gerrymandering can limit the competitiveness of legislative elections and instead favor incumbents or parties on very unequal footing. The resulting election may fall short of the ideals of free choice and deliberation, limiting a voter’s ability to affect the outcome. Because of gerrymandering, most districts have become so secure that out of the 435 seats in the House, there are only around 35 true swing districts. This helps explain why the incumbency advantage among House members is typically much higher than that of the Senate.

Many also argue that in gerrymandered districts, the favored party’s candidate will cater only to the party’s base, becoming more ideologically extreme and thus further polarizing the parties in the state’s legislature or in Congress.

While much about gerrymandering is questionable, the Supreme Court has let many gerrymanders stand. The most famous of these cases involves North Carolina’s 12th district. It was drawn to include black communities in several different cities and was in some places as narrow as the interstates. In the court’s 1993 decision, they said that the district was “highly irregular” and expressed discomfort with racial gerrymanders, arguing that they were subject to the strict scrutiny of the court because it could be a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Ultimately the Supreme Court upheld the district after North Carolina argued that the boundaries reflected a political goal—to create a safe Democratic congressional seat—and not a racial goal.

The Court’s concern about racial gerrymandering does not extend to other forms, such as partisan gerrymandering. In 1973, the Court upheld a Connecticut plan that made separate strongholds for both Democrats and Republicans to protect incumbents. The Court saw benefits for the plan since it provided a legislative body that mirrors the composition of Connecticut voters. In following cases it was confirmed that incumbent protection was not problematic in the view of the court, along with the refusal to rule that party gerrymanders are unconstitutional.

The Court’s concern about racial gerrymandering does not extend to other forms, such as partisan gerrymandering.

Even President Obama is guilty of taking part in partisan gerrymandering after the 2000 census. Obama and other Illinois Democrats drew up a new set of legislative districts, with Obama drawing a new district that encompassed the South Side, North Side and Gold Coast. This allowed the Democrats gain a majority in the Illinois Senate, helping Obama establish the foundation for more legislative accomplishments and launching his future career in national politics.

While gerrymandering can give racial minorities more political power, it ultimately undermines American democracy. Instead of people selecting who represents them, political elites are picking whom they represent.