Explained | Gerrymandering, a challenge to U.S. democracy?

What is redistricting? How is it becoming a decisive factor in U.S. electoral politics?

November 29, 2021 05:55 pm | Updated November 30, 2021 08:31 am IST

A protest sign at a rally in opposition to the proposed Congressional district maps at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on November 10, 2021.

A protest sign at a rally in opposition to the proposed Congressional district maps at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on November 10, 2021.

The story so far: Redistricting, the process of redrawing electoral boundaries, is conducted across U.S. Congressional and State legislative districts every decade, following the publication of the results of the population census. The principle behind redistricting is to ensure that the election of public officials embodies the ideal of genuine democratic representation, by factoring in changes in the geographic distribution of population. At the present juncture, the 2020 census results came in late, in August 2021, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this, in several ‘swing states’, or states that could potentially vote for members of either major political party, including Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, Republican State legislators have successfully gerrymandered their respective electoral districts to build up “supermajorities” that could potentially overrule the diktats of a Democratic Governor. This process leaves worrying questions on democratic representation unanswered, because in such cases, Democratic Party supporters in these states have virtually no constitutional means to change the leadership of their legislatures, a hallmark of substantive democracy. The gerrymandering issue becomes even more salient given that the U.S. Congress is virtually gridlocked on most major policy issues, leaving vital questions in areas such as reproductive rights, gun control and healthcare reform in the hands of State authorities to implement or not as they choose.

Why should Democrats be worried about gerrymandering?

During the redistricting cycle that kicked off a decade ago, Republicans in battleground states such as Michigan Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin Michigan redrew State legislative district boundaries to favour their party’s candidates. In the wake of that action, since 2011, Republicans have successfully held on to both houses of the State government in all three States for the best part of ten years. That this happened despite Democrats winning other key public posts including the office of Governor, demonstrates the considerable potential of gerrymandering to tip the scales towards one party in the long run. Yet this apparent loophole in democratic politics is not cast in stone, and even in the case of these three States, independent or bipartisan State legislature commissions are now taking up the cause of righting past wrongs and addressing the question of electoral map-making in a non-partisan manner.

An important point to note here is that it is by no means, in the longer arc of U.S. political history, that only the Republican Party is guilty of gerrymandering. Indeed, among the swing states of the 2020 election, one State, Nevada, offered control of the redistricting process to the Democratic Party, and in Nevada, reports suggest that Democrats have nearly finalised an electoral districts map that would “give them supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, despite President Biden’s winning just 51% of the State’s vote last year.”

What trends are driving redistricting?

A specific long-term demographic trend is the movement of Democratic supporters into relatively urban areas, and the movement of Republicans to rural areas with far lower population density. With such an ever-more skewed geographic distribution of voters, Republican Party lawmakers have found it convenient to include or exclude cities in a district with a large swathe of rural voters depending on the density of Democratic supporters living there.

In the years prior to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, redistricting was also driven by what is known as ‘packing,’ which is the attempt to redraw maps to ensure that a relatively larger proportion of a specific demographic group, such as African American voters, is ‘packed’ into a single or a few districts, blunting their capability to decisively determine an electoral outcome. In the first half of the 20th century and before, Southern States especially controlled the impact of the African American voter through such means. The flip side of packing is ‘cracking,’ which implies lawmakers seeking to break down a bunching together of certain voters who would support their opponents’ party, and spreading them across several districts, thus diluting their vote.

Where does the solution lie?

It is only through bipartisan or independent commissions exercising total control over redistricting that the process will be cleansed of political bias and represent genuine changes in population distribution. Presently, a majority of U.S. States – 39 out of 50 – do not have any such independent bodies.

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