Once a relatively unknown phenomenon across the general public, gerrymandering has come to the forefront of recent political discussions. Its notoriety comes from the imbalances it creates between the number of votes cast and the number of seats a party receives.
This practice started in Massachusetts in 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved a redistricting plan for the state Senate that gave Democratic-Republicans an advantage. The resulting district looked like a salamander, and the practice grew from there.
For a more recent example, we can look to 2012, when Democratic statehouse candidates won 51% of the vote in Pennsylvania. However, this only translated to being allocated 28% of the seats. The reason behind this imbalance is easy to see.
Before the 2010 elections, the Republican Party created the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP. The idea behind REDMAP was simple:
Every 10 years, the United States federal government initiates a census to count the changing American population. Following the census, states redraw their districts to conform to the new census data. 2010 was one such year in which redistricting would be done, because it was a census year.
In 24 states, state legislatures are in charge of redrawing these maps. A state legislature fully controlled by a single political party has the power to create districts that give their party the advantage.
Recognizing this, the political minds behind REDMAP figured that spending money on local races that would let them control redistricting would be the best strategy going into the year. They would have to spend less money, as local races are lower profile. And if they won, their gains would be locked in, meaning the strategy was low-cost and offered high reward.
After winning these races, a Republican-controlled redistricting effort would split parts of a mostly Democratic area into different districts, diluting those voters’ power.
This would only run into issues if a Democrat obtained a large proportion of votes in a state legislature or held the governorship. Then, redistricting would have to be a bipartisan effort, as governors often have veto power over redistricting maps.
The strategists behind REDMAP saw 2010 as an opportunity and poured resources into winning statehouses. They believed this would be less expensive and would lock in more generous returns than pouring money into a Senate race or something similar.
The REDMAP project was a success, garnering the Republican Party 21 state legislatures and six governorships. This sweep meant Republicans had the keys to redrawing 55% percent of congressional districts while Democrats only had sole control to redraw 10% of seats.
Such a reality imposed heavy influences on who would be elected to the U.S. Congress as well as who would win state elections.
In the 2012 presidential election, 224 congressional districts went to Sen. Mitt Romney while only 211 went to former President Barack Obama, despite the president winning the national vote by 4% nationwide. Obama would have needed to win the national popular vote by about 5.5% to carry a majority of districts.
Due to gerrymandering following the 2010 drawings, an average Democrat running for Congress or a state seat needed to vastly overperform compared to the politician at the top of the ticket, like the presidential nominee, to win.
Or, they would need to pick up voters who are not likely to vote for their party. Thus, structural advantages for the gerrymandering party are created, making them politicians within that party responsive to elections and the voters’ will.
In 2020, flipping state legislatures and governorships was a crucial part of Democratic efforts, and protecting those targets was a large part of Republican strategies. Redistricting control was up for grabs in 10 states, or about 132 congressional districts, equating to 30% of the U.S. House.
However, Democrats mainly struck out by failing to recapture or flip any state legislatures. Republicans will now control the mapping process of 40% of congressional seats in 2021, which will give allow them to cement their redistricting power for the next decade.
Without making up meaningful ground, Democrats will have little say over redistricting and will be left out of the mapping across the nation. This will likely cause them to look toward other avenues, such as trying to create nonpartisan commissions to draw maps, or pushing for other electoral reforms that will make redistricting less tied to elections.
Some states, including Arizona and Colorado, have safeguards against gerrymandering: they hire independent redistricting commissions to draw maps. Meanwhile, California uses a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw maps.
The commission excludes lawmakers and other various biased members and is split nearly evenly between Republicans (5), Democrats (5) and independents (4). Some politicians say these are the best solutions to preventing future gerrymandering, while others prefer a structural change.
If the United States switched to a proportional voting style, this could prevent unfairly drawn maps from mattering because the party’s results would be tied to a percentage instead of a winner-take-all outcome.
In any case, gerrymandering is a critical issue that will continue to erode how representative the government is and how responsive politicians have to be to their people. It will also continue to disenfranchise voters who are stuck in districts that have been drawn unfairly.
Any change to this will have to come from the states, as the Supreme Court ruled in June of 2019 that it could not say if gerrymandering was constitutional or not due to it being a political issue, and neither can federal judges.
In order for gerrymandering to change, states could switch to citizens commissions or any of the other proposed solutions — because the states are the entities responsible for how elections and mapping are done.