The Future of Redistricting
As of October 12, 2020, 99.9% of the Census was completed. Sixty-six percent completed the census online, a new occurrence with the pandemic. The census, counting all people living in the United States every ten years, is vital in determining the number of seats that are allocated per state within the House of Representatives and how congressional districts are drawn.
The data for creating the districts, or redistricting, will be available by Sept. 30. Redistricting is managed in one of three ways. First, it could be completed by an independent commission and would be imputed with no political considerations. That is the case in six states: California, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, New-Jersey and Michigan. With the independent non-political commission analyzing the redistricting, partisan gerrymandering is less likely to occur.
The second way redistricting can be done is through a combination of an independent commission and the state legislature. This is the case in New York and Virginia, which have different ways of implementing the redistricting but use the same methodology for allocating seats. However, for a vast majority of the states, 33 of 50, the districts are drawn by the state legislatures. In these states, there is frequent partisan gerrymandering by whichever party happens to be in charge.
Historically, the concept of gerrymandering was named after former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. He helped draw districts that would give disproportionate representation to the Democratic-Republicans way back in 1812. This way of creating districts has continued to this day where the political party in control draws districts to benefit their political party.
Gerrymandering and its related consequences of having a controlling majority were so consequential to the union that they were espoused in the Fourteenth Amendment. The clause that is especially important to the gerrymandering phenomenon is in Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state.” This amendment enshrines the number of representatives to be determined by the population of the state, allowing for the creation of legislative districts that accurately give representation to all those living in the state. This amendment does not however prescribe how districts and representatives should be allocated which allows for gerrymandering to take place.
Regardless of this law being written in the Constitution, many states do not practice this. Both Democrats and Republicans who want to remain in power tend to draw districts that benefit them.
While several Supreme Court rulings are supposed to prevent the gerrymandering of districts, they rarely succeeded. There are many cases of this beginning with Baker v. Carr (1964). This case focused on when the Tennessee legislature had drawn unconstitutional districts because the districts were not drawn to reflect accurate apportionment stated in the constitution. The most recent case on redistricting that has made it to the Supreme Court was Evenwel v. Abbott (2016) in which the court ruled districts must be drawn in adherence with the total population of the district regardless of the total number of registered voters. This was a unanimous opinion issued by the Supreme Court where they allowed Texas to continue drawing districts with equal populations but unequal numbers of people registered to vote.
In Georgia, there is an important example of how it is possible to overcome gerrymandering. Georgia was a crucial part of the Democrat’s gaining two key seats in the Senate and aided in President Biden in winning the election. The district that was an important victory for Democrats in overcoming gerrymandering was Georgia’s 6th district. This was the district that Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) ran in 2017. In the same year that Ossoff ran, the Cook Partisan Index rated this district an R+8, which means that it has a strong Republican majority, by eight percentage points to be exact and would be unlikely for a Democrat to win.
However, in his runoff, Ossoff lost this race by an incredibly slim margin. His race was the closest until 2018, when Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA), won the district.
Over the past few years, Georgia has transitioned from being a solidly red state to a much more purple state. This was mainly due to the efforts of Democratic organizer Stacey Abrams . In 2018 Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia against Gov. Brian Kemp, the Republican challenger. Abrams lost the race in part because Kemp, at the time serving as Georgia’s Secretary of State, improperly purged over 300,000 voters from the rolls in the lead-up to the election. This pattern of voter repression has sparked up again recently with the introduction of laws that many believe further reduce access to the ballot. After her defeat, Abrams created the organization Fair Fight to stand against voter suppression across the United States. Gerrymandering in particular is one of the main tools of voter suppression, by creating a district where there is a strong Democratic or Republican majority it allows for other districts which could be more evenly split to be a much easier victory for the party in control of the state legislature.
Regardless of Abrams’s efforts, Georgia is a trifecta state. Georgia has a Republican-controlled State House of Representatives, Senate and Governorship. It is also one of the 33 states where the Legislature determines the redistricting of seats. This means that the Republicans can gerrymander the districts of the state to their advantage. Irrevocably altering the districting of the state for at least the next decade. Georgia is a microcosm of the larger American political system and battle for redistricting as a whole. When the census data for redistricting comes out in September the battle against unconstitutional districts will occur all across the nation and especially in the 33 states which use State legislatures to draw their districts.