The end of a gerrymandered America?

April 4, 2020

With the 2020 United States census currently taking place, states will be bracing themselves for the upcoming redistricting cycle that follows every census. Redistricting involves redrawing the map of voting districts as the population changes and moves over time, and is undoubtedly becoming an increasingly contentious issue in the USA owing to the partisan gerrymandering of state legislative districts and congressional districts that have blighted many states over the last decade. Whilst gerrymandering, the act of shaping districts for purely political gain rather than through any natural boundaries is nothing new in the America, it has become increasingly prevalent with time. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans (GOP) achieved significant gains throughout the country, particularly in state legislature elections. Twenty chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control and the GOP took 11 governorships. Considering state legislatures and governors oversee redistricting in many states, the GOP utilised their newfound control to entrench their gains and set about gerrymandering many states in the redistricting cycle that followed the 2010 census.

 

Though these GOP advantages remain and will probably persist into the next decade, there is some hope and those affected by gerrymandering should remain optimistic. Several high-profile court cases over the last decade have limited severe cases of partisan gerrymandering in states such as North Carolina and activism against gerrymandering has increased exponentially. Some states that were heavily gerrymandered in the 2010 cycle have passed measures to reduce gerrymandering. Strong Democratic performance in the 2018 midterms will also allow gerrymandering to be reversed in some states. 

 

Recent activity in North Carolina provides valuable insight into how gerrymandering is being actively challenged. The districts in North Carolina provided the GOP with 10 of the 13 congressional districts. This is despite the GOP only receiving 50 percent of the state-wide popular vote, with the Democrats getting 48 percent. These districts were challenged in North Carolina state court and last year they were judged to be illegal. This was perceived to represent a massive win by anti-gerrymandering campaigners. New districts were drawn which would likely only grant the GOP 8 of the 13 congressional districts. Though this marked some modest improvement, in a state where the popular vote is roughly split half and half between the two main parties, these districts remain hugely unfair. Campaigners had desperately hoped the state court would demand another redrawing of the congressional map. This did not happen, and the state court allowed the new maps to stand. David Leonhardt of The New York Times described this as ‘a victory for gerrymandering.’ Though the marginal increase in fairness must be celebrated and is a sign that things can get better, the courts are not the answer to eradicating extreme partisan gerrymandering. Other landmark court cases have also proved this, evidenced by events in Maryland. Whilst partisan gerrymandering of the last decade has been predominantly carried out by the GOP, the Democrats in Maryland are responsible for some of the most extreme boundaries in the United States. In 2018 a group of Republican voters won a court case that ordered the state to redraw its congressional districts with fairer boundaries. Like the initial ruling in North Carolina, this was hailed as a significant step in the right direction. This decision was appealed, however, and last year the Supreme Court ruled that Maryland did not have to redraw its boundaries. 

 

Whilst it is becoming increasingly evident that gerrymandering will not be eliminated through legal actions and the courts, hope remains due to positive steps taken by the politicians of various states and because of political changes resulting from recent elections. In California gerrymandering has been effectively eliminated over the last decade because of the successful creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Consisting of ordinary members of the public from across the political spectrum, the commission proposed fair boundaries, a stark contrast from the previous boundaries that were drawn on bi-partisan lines. In the states of Michigan and Ohio, laws have been adopted that will make it significantly harder for the incumbent Republicans to gerrymander the states again in the 2020 cycle. In Virginia the Democrats took control of the State Senate and House of Delegates in the 2019 elections, allowing them to potentially reverse the GOP gerrymanders in the upcoming cycle. What has happened in Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia fundamentally proves that the red wall created by the Republicans in 2010 is finally showing cracks. California proves to us that politicians are willing to put democratic fairness first, even if it invariably produces a threat to the status quo.

 

Many reasons suggest we might be on the brink of witnessing the end of extreme partisan gerrymandering. I do, however, remain pessimistic. Despite a noticeable shift in attitudes over the last decade, a drastic change in the political landscape simply is not possible in certain states due to its gerrymandered districts. These bastions of the GOP are very much starting to show cracks, yet the unfair boundaries will continue to prevent a total collapse, and they will likely remain in Republican hands going into the next decade and beyond. One can only hope that the 2020 redistricting cycle will result in greater fairness, but I simply can’t envisage any drastic progress. I also anticipate the Democrats may attempt to capitalise on their gains in the 2018 midterms and strengthen themselves in the era of Trump by engaging in partisan gerrymandering practices of their own in the 2020 cycle, emulating what the GOP did in 2010. Whilst it cannot be denied that the anti-gerrymandering cause has won several key victories over the last decade, partisan gerrymandering will continue to remain a nasty symptom of America’s federal system for the foreseeable future.

 

Image - Flickr (Kenny Cole)

 

 

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