Let’s Talk About Gerrymandering


YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district so as to favor one party. It has been in the news a lot recently due to some high-profile court cases and you’ve no doubt seen some maps of the crazier looking districts. It may seem like an issue you can’t influence, but believe me, you can.

How States Draw Their District Lines

Districts are redrawn every 10 years, after the census is taken. The last census was in 2010 and that fall, the midterm elections of 2010 happened. Democrats lost a ton of Congressional seats, representation in state legislatures, and governorships that year. This meant that many districts were redrawn by legislatures in states with single-party, Republican control.

Here’s a great illustration from the Washington Post that shows how drawing the lines can affect voting results:


I would only add that in their “Perfect representation” example, that while that model would produce election results that match the political leaning of the electorate, those districts wouldn’t be competitive at all. Those politicians would be so “safe” that they would have little to no incentive to listen to their voters.

The Brennan Center for Justice did a deep dive into the election data since the last round of redistricting and found that the gerrymandering that the Republicans did, particularly in battleground states, results in a “durable advantage of 16-17 seats in the current Congress.” You can read a short summary of their report, “Extreme Maps,” here.

Since the last redistricting, there have been many lawsuits filed claiming that districts were illegally gerrymandered in several states. The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed that North Carolina had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering by packing African-American voters into two districts.

As of this writing, there are six pending cases at the Supreme Court that relate to gerrymandering.

Court cases are important and I encourage you to support the organizations that bring these cases to the court. That said, there are ways for you to help with this issue, especially as we look ahead to the redistricting that will happen right after the 2020 elections and census.

(NOTE: A small minority of states redistrict using independent commissions, i.e. completely separate from the state legislature. Their rules bar elected officials from participating and several bar commissioners from running for office in the districts that they draw. Wikipedia has a good summary of those states.)

How You Can Influence Redistricting

Today, states are gearing up for the 2020 census and the resulting redistricting, and have introduced many bills to guide the process. Every state handles this differently, so you need to be in contact with your STATE legislators about these bills. This is a fight you need to engage in locally.

Many states have already introduced bills to guide the redistricting process. Here’s a map showing all the states that had done so in 2017:

Contact your state legislators and ask them about the bill. Ask them where you can find the text of the bill to read; ask them what the status of the bill is and when it might be coming up for a vote; ask them how they intend to vote and/or how you want them to vote. Find out if there will be any public hearings for the bill and if they will take public input. Get any activist groups you are a member of involved and apply pressure to get the result you want.

Another idea: On February 6, the Ohio legislature overwhelmingly voted for a new, bipartisan redistricting process but they were influenced by a coalition of groups in Ohio called Fair Districts = Fair Elections. Look over their coalition list and you’ll see the local chapters of big national organizations that also have chapters in your state. Contact them to find out what they are doing in your state to influence your legislators to create fair, competitive districts.

You can influence how your state redistricts. I hope you now have some ideas of where to look to get started on this important issue!

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