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How Gerrymandering is Ruining Democracy

By Eman Hamed

Edited by Danika Suh

We are taught the “pretty side” of historic elections - we learn about intriguing candidates and presidencies such as Martin van Buren, the first American-born leader of the U.S., or William Henry Harrison, the first ever President to have died in office. Well, that’s not necessarily pretty, but you understand the logic. Many things we learn about democracy and elections are sugar coated and hardly delve into the depths of truthful semantics. That’s why this piece is going to discuss one of the most toxic aspects to our democracy: gerrymandering.

What is Gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is cheating. Every state has “maps,” where the state is figuratively broken up and parts are outlined that represent a “district,” where everyone in that zone is represented by a member of Congress/politician. However, gerrymandering is the manipulation of these lines and district drawings. Politicians manipulate maps in order to predetermine the outcome and consolidate as much power as they can. The goal is to draw boundaries of legislative districts, so that as many seats as possible are likely to be won by a certain party’s candidates. They do this through two notorious methods: cracking or packing districts.

A packed district is drawn to include as many of the opposing party’s voters as possible. That helps the governing party win surrounding districts where the opposition’s strength has been diluted, to create the packed district. Cracking does the opposite: it splits up clusters of opposition voters among several districts, so that they will be outnumbered in each district.

Gerrymandering from 2010-2020

According to the New York Times, currently, rigged maps tend to be most prevalent in states under Republican control, such as North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas. That is in part because Republicans did exceptionally well in the 2010 elections, giving the party far wider control of state legislatures, which oversaw redistricting after the 2010 census. In 2012, Republican congressional candidates in Ohio received just over half of the statewide vote, yet they won 75% of the seats, meaning they hold 75% of the power. In 2014, Republican candidates received 57% of the statewide vote and yet again they hold 75% of congressional seats. This is not democracy; this is rigging elections. The national Republican Party had poured money and expertise into state legislative races with the specific aim of gaining control over redistricting; the Democratic Party had not. Unfortunately, however, gerrymandering is a bipartisan practice: among Democratic-held states, Maryland and Illinois are regarded as the most manipulated.

How Gerrymandering is Ruining Democracy

The most detrimental effect gerrymandering has on our political system is that it leads inevitably to polarization. Manipulating and stretching congressional districts pushes incumbents, the current holders of an office or position, to the extremes of the political spectrum. Republicans have become more conservative and Democrats more liberal.

But why does this happen? If an incumbent’s only fear is a primary challenge, his or her focus will be to maintain ideological purity, rather than pursue legislative pragmatism, or new ideas. Consequently, the least productive Congresses in history have come in the past decade. According to The Pew Research Center, the 113th Congress (2013-2014) was almost the least productive Congress in history, second only to the 112th Congress (2011-2012).

Polarization, when political parties become extremely distant in ideologies, makes it very difficult to solve the problems that affect people’s lives: healthcare, criminal justice reform, climate change reform, immigration reform, voting rights, welfare, and gun safety. Because of it, solutions to these issues can hardly ever be reached: it is hard to have a bipartisan compromise.

Last but not least, gerrymandering incites voter suppression. Because gerrymandering lessens the impact of a vote since the outcomes are rigged and pre-determined, citizens’ voices and concerns don’t matter and are hardly ever heard. More so, people are less inclined to be involved in the voting process when they know this. Democracy is not at its fullest potential.

Undoing Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering’s legality has been brought all the way to the Supreme Court, who, in the end, decided, 5-4, that the question of partisan gerrymandering was a political one that must be resolved by the elected branches of government, and not a legal question that the federal courts should decide. This decision was largely because the justices have not been able to agree on a legal standard that would let them distinguish between illegally partisan maps and acceptable ones. District courts had thrown the maps out as unconstitutional, but the decisions were appealed.

So What Now?

The very nature of gerrymandering can be opposed in a few ways. One: take to your Congressional district offices to discuss the ramifications of gerrymandering with your existing officials! Two: ensure you support politicians and political organizations that condemn gerrymandering and do not partake in it. Three: educate yourself and be part of nonpartisan initiatives to take gerrymandering out of politics. A good organization to join is All On The Line, a group that gathers volunteers to advocate for transparent redistricting processes.

At the end of the day, it’s time to extract gerrymandering out of American politics and start seeing the people’s voice heard.

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