Should politicians be allowed to choose the constituents they want to serve? No, of course not. That would be ridiculous. Their job is to represent the voters and their needs. But, essentially, that’s what gerrymandering does–it flips the script.
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 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 Republican gerrymandering, 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.
As one example of this structural advantage from the midterms, in Wisconsin, Democrats won 54% of the popular vote, but only 33% of the seats in the state legislature. The culprit? Gerrymandering.
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 two pending cases at the Supreme Court that relate to gerrymandering.
Court cases are important and I encourage you to support 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 shortly 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 redistricting that follows, 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 an issue you need to engage in locally.
1. Many states have already introduced bills to guide the redistricting process. Check here for a continually updated list of the states that have done so in 2019: State Redistricting Bills – 2019
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.
2. Alternatively, if you live in one of the 24 states that allow their citizens to place initiatives on the ballot directly–check HERE for those states)–you can work with like-minded citizens and voting rights organizations to accomplish that. Four states accomplished just that in the midterms, so you can look to them for inspiration: How Did Citizen-Led Redistricting Initiative Fare in the Midterms? Very Well
You CAN influence how your state redistricts and limit gerrymandering. If you are involved with redistricting and gerrymandering reform in your state, let me know in the comments. I’d be interested in posting more about your state-specific efforts!