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Gerrymandering and Political Power: Does your vote really count?

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Voting, a pillar of democracy, has been being manipulated by state legislators to benefit their party for centuries. Gerrymandering districts and drawing boundaries to undermine voters threatens our democracy. Manipulating votes goes against democratic ideals and has no place in our elections.

Personal Interest Paper

Early History

For centuries, gerrymandering has been used as a corrupt tool used to waste votes and manipulate elections. The first time the word gerrymandering was use was in 1812. It was named after Elbridge Gerry, who used gerrymandering to help the Democratic-Republicans maintain control of the state senate. It eventually evolved into a tactic to not only waste votes of the other parties, but to undermine minority voters after the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The term gerrymander was created in 1812 and is named after Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts at that time. It is a combination of Gerry’s last name and the salamander-like shape of the district of Essex County which he created after signing a new redistricting bill.

Later, in 1965, The Voting Rights Act was introduced, allowing anyone to vote regardless of their race. As a reaction to The Voting Rights Act, new forms of preventing minorities from voting were created, such as racial gerrymandering, a useful tactic in undermining minority voters by making their votes count less. Though this new tactic did not go unchallenged. Many court cases over unconstitutional gerrymandering soon followed. Some of these voting rights cases were brought before the Supreme Court, but most were struck down because it was difficult to judge a gerrymandering case due to “The lack of a legal and technical standard against which a challenged map can be compared…” (O’Loughlin). The amendment to The Voting Rights Act in 1982, prohibiting discriminatory electoral tactics brought many more cases to the Supreme Court over racial gerrymandering however, still, no progress was made. Gerrymandering continued through the 1960s, as a tactic to segregate and undermine minority voters or manipulate the votes to favor one party. Although there were many court cases, some of which reversed gerrymandered districts, it still remains a problem to this day.

For more information on the history of gerrymandering, click here.

Present Day

In the present day, gerrymandering been increasingly becoming a problem which has continued to rise, however some states have been looking into ways to stop it. A study that which used the calculation of votes wasted in elections, known as the “efficiency gap”, discovered a distinct rise in wasted votes from 1972-2012. Although the rise in vote wasting indicates an increase in gerrymandering, this efficiency gap could also be used to help prove gerrymandering cases in court as it could be used as evidence of manipulating votes. Though it is too still soon to say that the days of gerrymandering are numbered, it seems that more people and organizations are looking into possible solutions. An upcoming Supreme Court case by Common Cause on unconstitutional gerrymandering in North Carolina may help protect voters from being cheated by unfair districts. With the help of organizations and petitions like Common Cause, some states are adopting their own ways to better prevent gerrymandering. In 2018, Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado, with the help from multiple organizations, successfully passed laws and State Constitutional amendments to implement methods of stopping gerrymandering. If these new anti-gerrymandering efforts are successful, hopefully, other states will look into adopting similar methods. Though large push to stop gerrymandering in 2018 was successful, many states are still plagued with gerrymandering and its future is still undecided.

The efficiency gap is a calculation of the wasted votes in an election. It takes the total democratic wasted votes minus the total republican wasted votes all divided by the total votes cast. A study done on the efficiency gap from 1972-2012 shows a growing advantage for Republicans. Around the 1980s, the Democrats had the advantage with an average gap of 1.52%, but through the 1990s the gap began to favor Republicans with a -1.04%. The gap expanded further to favor Republicans with a -3.67% gap by 2012 (Stephanopoulos & McGhee, 872). One example supporting this is in North Carolina. In 2012, under a redistricting plan by the Republican controlled state legislature, nine Republicans and four Democrats were elected to the House even though 51% of the votes cast were for Democrats (“Taking on Gerrymandering”). The growth of gerrymandering and its effect on election outcomes, as shown in the data, means more votes are being wasted each election and important elections are being manipulated as a result. Though this data shows a significant increase in gerrymandering, calculating the efficiency gap could be used as evidence of gerrymandering in court.

Currently, an upcoming case, Rucho v. Common Cause, will decide whether North Carolina’s 2016 congressional district was unconstitutional. Depending on the outcome of the case, the Supreme Court may be able to provide a standard which would end partisan gerrymandering. Other organizations similar to Common Cause have made successful efforts to stop gerrymandering by using petitions to change how districts are drawn. An organization called Voters Not Politicians helped to pass an amendment to Michigan’s state constitution, which would task an independent group of citizens to redistrict Michigan, rather than the state legislature. Other states such as Missouri, Colorado, and Ohio are also using similar methods to prevent gerrymandering in their state. Colorado, like Michigan, will be creating two commissions, one with the task of drawing congressional lines and the other to draw state legislative lines. Ohio implemented a law that would require a hybrid of the state legislature and a commission to draw congressional districts. Missouri’s anti-gerrymandering initiative took a different approach by mandating the use of a statistical, nonpartisan mathematical formula to draw its districts as well as appointing a state demographer.

Although this large movement may seem like the end of gerrymandering, we have yet to see how effective the new amendments will be. Despite progress, we are still a far way away from the end of gerrymandering. While the recent push to end gerrymandering in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Colorado may be a step forward, other highly gerrymandered states may be more resistant to a change in how districts are drawn. Already there have been attempts to stop these recent anti-gerrymandering efforts. Following the North Carolina Democrats filing their lawsuit in Rucho v. Common Cause, GOP lawmakers filed a motion to have the case removed from federal court. Although this motion failed, it is this type of resistance that could hinder anti-gerrymandering efforts. Another issue that faces the anti-gerrymandering attempts is the Supreme Courts aversion to ruling on gerrymandering cases. A recent Supreme Court case, Gill V. Whitford, argued that partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin favored Republicans and violated the Equal Protection Clause. Unfortunately, the case was sent back for reargument because of a lack of evidence despite the plaintiffs using the efficiency gap as evidence. The Supreme Court has undeniably shown reluctance to directly specify to what extent gerrymandering is legal or not. Based on past court cases, one can only hope that in the upcoming case, Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court will address the widespread problem and create a standard for drawn districts which future cases may be compared to.

For more information on the gerrymandering in present day, click here.

The future of gerrymandering

In the past, it has been made clear that Supreme Court Cases on gerrymandering often fail to reach a definitive decision on whether gerrymandering is legal or not, or to what extent it may be done. Due to the little progress made to stop gerrymandering in the past, its effects have only gotten worse. In the last few years, the efficiency gap calculations show increasing vote wasting in elections (Stephanopoulos & McGhee, 872). However, recently large improvements have been made at the state level. In 2018, four states adopted varying systems for drawing districts, in hopes of avoiding any future gerrymandering. While the future of gerrymandering is looking better, many of the most gerrymandered states such as North Carolina and Maryland still have not changed their district drawing systems. Hopefully, with the recent support towards preventing gerrymandering, more states may adopt better district drawing systems, which are less likely to be manipulated to benefit one party over the other.

Last year, four states introduced new redistricting methods after the ballot proposals were passed. One of the most unique redistricting methods of the four is Missouri’s, which will use a mathematical formula to draw the district lines and an appointed demographer to supervise. The idea of using mathematical formulas to draw districts could be very useful in providing unbiased and fair elections by ignoring demographics and censuses which have been used to manipulate elections in the past. Another approach for a solution being tested is independent commissions, which would have the task of drawing districts rather than state legislature. States like Michigan, Colorado, and Ohio are going to begin using variations on the independent commissions concept in future redistricting. Michigan is planning on creating an independent group of citizens which will redistrict the state, Colorado will have two commissions to redistrict Congressional districts and state legislature districts respectively and Ohio will have an independent commission and the state legislature work together to redraw districts. Independent commissions could be an effective way to stop gerrymandering as the commissions may be more trustworthy than mathematical functions. Though these solutions are only being implemented in a few states, many other states are trying to implement their own systems.

Multiple organizations are petitioning for more state-level changes and hope to bring an end to gerrymandering. Supporting these petitions is crucial to spreading these new forms of redistricting and wiping out partisan gerrymandering. While a nationwide revision of our redistricting process would be the most direct solution, it seems that effecting change on the state level is a more practical approach and easily obtainable for states with direct initiative. The change seen last year for gerrymandering gives hope that in the future more states will embrace plans like these but these plans won’t make it far without public support.

For more information on gerrymandering solutions, click here.

Works Cited

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