By Chloe Yang
Based on the results of the 2020 census, state and local governments across the nation are beginning a new cycle of redistricting, or redrawing district lines in accordance with population shifts. However, through redistricting, politicians now utilize a practice known as gerrymandering, or redrawing district boundaries with the intention of favoring the electoral chances of one group over another. Partisan gerrymandering, which is redistricting to favor one political party over another, has been utilized frequently by politicians from both sides of the aisle. This practice has only been heightened in the most recent redistricting cycle following the Supreme Court ruling in the 2019 Rucho v. Common Cause case, which decided that partisan gerrymandering cannot be challenged in federal court, although they can still be challenged in state courts.
Most notably, partisan gerrymandering has been heavily weaponized by Republicans during the 2021-22 redistricting process. This gerrymandering scheme began back in 2010, when Republicans unveiled the REDMAP initiative which targeted swing states in the 2010 election to gain power in the corresponding redistricting process. The impacts of this initiative were effective, and as REDMAP’s own website puts it, that party that has power over the redistricting process “shap[es] the political landscape for the next 10 years.”
Twelve years after the start of REDMAP, Republicans are continuing to unjustly use partisan gerrymandering to their advantage. In Ohio and North Carolina, for example, although the redrawn maps have since been struck down, Republicans have attempted to pass maps that have both received an “F” grade on the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s partisanship scale.
As the 2021-22 redistricting process begins to wind down, it is becoming increasingly clear that the current system of partisan gerrymandering is becoming less and less democratic. The primary nomination system is largely to blame––partisan gerrymandering removes any real competition from general elections, meaning the primary election of the dominant party all but determines district representation. Not only does partisan gerrymandering skew representation and create extreme polarization, they also impact a multitude of social and political issues.
The passage of gun prevention legislation, for example, has been hindered by the proliferation of partisan gerrymandering. Public support for increased gun control legislation has been rising in the US within recent years, largely due to the increase in mass shootings and gun-related homicides. However, while 88% of Americans support requiring background checks on all gun sales, many states have failed to take this action because of the disconnect between the representatives and their voters. For example, in 2017, Democrats won a majority of the popular vote for the Virginia House of Delegates. However, thanks to the gerrymandered districts, Republicans held on to control, and the following year, the same thing happened in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. These Republican-controlled legislatures have repeatedly refused to allow gun restriction bills to have a hearing or come to a vote.
Similarly, partisan gerrymandering has also limited access to health insurance. While states can receive federal funding to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, the states themselves must approve it. Because of partisan gerrymandering, conservative politicians from Wisconsin, to North Carolina, and Georgia, have opposed ACA policies that are estimated to have insured 1 million more people and prevented around 3,000 deaths in 2019.
Partisan gerrymandering has also hindered the expansion of child care and education programs. Expanding programs that provide support for children have long been a bipartisan issue: 70% of Americans favor increasing funding for expanding pre-K education — 53% of Republicans and 87% of Democrats. Although policies like tax credit for child care have been proposed in states like North Carolina, the effort for adoption was quickly quashed by the Republican dominated legislature. Similar efforts, which have been proposed in Michigan and Pennsylvania, were also defeated in the gerrymandered state legislatures.
In addition to partisan gerrymandering, racial gerrymandering, or the practice of drawing political boundaries to favor one racial group over another, still continues to plague our redistricting process as well, even though the practice was outlawed in the Shaw v. Reno Supreme Court case. While partisan gerrymandering is constitutional, racial gerrymandering is not. However, because it is difficult to distinguish between the two, racial gerrymandering still takes place under the guise of political partisanship.
Specifically, Republicans have been using racial gerrymandering to dilute the power of African American voters to push Democratic leaders out of office or dilute their electoral chances. Racial gerrymandering is more prominent in this redistricting cycle in particular because it follows the Shelby County v. Holder. Supreme Court decision that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which defined the rules for redistricting based on voter turnout. Essentially, this decision gave states the ability to create more restrictive voting laws without federal approval. In Texas, and in nine other states primarily in the South, redistricting maps no longer needed federal approval.
The New York Times found that “the number of Black legislators being drawn out of their districts [in this cycle] outpaces that of recent redistricting cycles.” And Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc concedes that, “Without a doubt [racial gerrymandering is] worse than it was in any recent decade.”
This pattern is proven in numerous Republican-led states. For example, while people of color account for more than 95% of Texas’ population growth since the 2010 redistricting cycle, the Texas State Legislature drew two new Congressional seats with populations that were predominantly white. States like Alabama and South Carolina are also continuing their decades-long tradition of packing African American voters into a single Congressional district to minimize the power of their votes, even though there were attempts to have a second majority-Black House district created.
While beneficial in theory, in practice, gerrymandering has unfortunately become far too politicized and favors politicians over people. Gerrymandering, both partisan and racial, are frankly undemocratic practices that arbitrarily minimize the voices of some citizens and amplify the voices of others. Politicians must strive to leave the game of elections and partisanship behind for the betterment of their own constituents. In our current system, it is no longer our voters who chose our representatives, but rather our representatives who are choosing their voters.