In 2010, in the wake of voter anger over the Bush recession, which had somehow been transferred to Obama through the rise of the “Tea Party”, and fearmongering over the Affordable Care Act, the Republican party scored record gains in state elections, winning 11 governorships that had been previously held by Democrats, and perhaps even more importantly, winning 680 more state legislative seats than they had held the previously, and taking control of 19 additional state legislative chambers. The Republican party immediately took advantage of these record state gains by instituting one of the most broad based gerrymandering schemes in American history, with the effects still being felt in many states 8 years later.
What is gerrymandering? It is a practice of manipulating district boundaries in order to secure an advantage for a particular political party. For example, if Democratic voters tend to cluster in certain areas of a state, a Republican attempt to gerrymander the districts would set out to draw districts that would capture most of the reliably Democratic voters in just a couple of the state’s districts, so that the remaining majority of districts would lean Republican. If, in a hypothetical situation, a state split votes close to 50/50 with 10 districts, if 3 of those districts could be drawn to give Democrats an advantage of 80/20, the remaining 7 districts would give Republicans an advantage of 63/37 on average, and a state with a 50/50 voter split would end up with 3 Democrats and 7 Republicans elected as House Representatives.
What made the 2010 election so important was that it coincided with the 2010 Census, which precedes the drawing of new districts in most states. Because the Republicans had secured so much more power in state legislatures in 2010, they used their power to draw as favorable districts as they could in many states. They gerrymandered the districts.
Some of those gerrymandered districts have been overturned by state supreme courts, such as in Pennsylvania, or voter initiatives, such as in Michigan. However, several states still have gerrymandered districts in place that heavily favor Republicans.
In North Carolina, the results of the 2018 midterm election saw Democrats get nearly 50% of the total votes for the U.S. House of Representatives, yet 10 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the House were won by Republicans. Why? Because the Republicans in power at the state level fixed it that way.
Both districts were built explicitly to protect Republicans, and they delivered. Had Coleman and Dan McCready won, North Carolina’s congressional delegation would have split 8–5—not quite proportional to the popular vote, but less glaring a disparity. And though a special master redrew some of North Carolina’s legislative districts last year, the Republicans still have a built-in advantage—which is how they secured solid majorities in both the state House and Senate despite losing the popular vote.
The system is (to use one of the president’s favorite words) rigged—by Republicans, for Republicans. And so any Republican talk of a “clear mandate” should be ignored. This is a state whose legislature is functioning under minority rule.
In Ohio, the results of the 2018 midterm election saw Democrats get nearly 45% of the total votes for the U.S. House of Representatives, yet 12 of Ohio’s 16 seats in the House were won by Republicans. Why? Because the Republicans in power at the state level fixed it that way.
When the Republican-controlled State Legislature and Republican governor redrew the congressional map in 2011, they distorted how voters are distributed. They packed voters who tended to vote Democratic into four districts (the Third, Ninth, 11th and 13th). The remaining left-leaning voters were scattered among across a large number of districts in which Republicans won by safe margins.
The map was still in effect this year. The gerrymandering advantage built by Republicans withstood the blue wave.
In Texas, the results of the 2018 midterm election saw Democrats get nearly 50% of the total votes for the U.S. House of Representatives, yet 23 of Texas’ 36 seats in the House were won by Republicans. Why? Because the Republicans in power at the state level fixed it that way.
“By most objective statistical or mathematical measures, Texas is one of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S.,” said Daniel McGlone, a senior analyst with Azavea, a Philadelphia-based firm that has studied congressional district line-drawing.
Michael Li, senior counsel with the Democracy Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, agreed.
“At the congressional level, it’s fair to say Texas is one of the most skewed” based on partisan bias, Li said.
In Wisconsin, the results of the 2018 midterm election saw Democrats get nearly 55% of the total votes for the State Assembly, yet 63 of Wisconsin’s 99 seats in the State Assembly were won by Republicans. Why? Because the Republicans in power at the state level fixed it that way.
In 2011, Republicans, who controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, used that power to cement majorities through the redistricting process — the constitutionally required once-a-decade process to adjust electoral maps for changes in population.
Besides the fact that gerrymandering results in unfair representation by the political party that has fixed the districts in their favor, it also does harm to the democratic process. When districts are gerrymandered to setup a particular result, this in effect becomes a case of the politicians choosing their voters instead of the voters choosing their politicians. When voters feel as if their district has been engineered to produce a specific result, it also creates voter apathy because voters feel like their vote just won’t make a difference. Of course, for Republicans this is likely seen as a feature, not a bug. It works hand in hand with the other ways in which Republicans try to suppress voting, such as closing polling places, enacting onerous voter ID laws, and purging voter registration rolls.
Unfortunately, even though gerrymandering should be seen by anyone without a partisan agenda as an obvious affront to democracy, the conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court has continually upheld the state’s rights to gerrymander their districts in a partisan fashion.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Texas’ gerrymandering districts in June of 2018:
The Supreme Court on Monday largely upheld an array of congressional and state legislative districts in Texas, reversing trial court rulings that said the districts violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against voters on the basis of race.
The vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative members in the majority. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the trial court had “committed a fundamental legal error” by requiring state officials to justify their use of voting maps that had been largely drawn by the trial court itself.
The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of Wisconsin’s gerrymandered districts in June of 2018:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a Democratic challenge to Wisconsin’s GOP-friendly legislative map while sidestepping the big constitutional questions the case raised about partisan gerrymandering.
The opinion leaves in place the current legislative lines, a political victory for Wisconsin Republicans.
It continues to be apparent that the John Roberts Supreme Court has little interest in defending democracy. So, the voters will just have to do it themselves. When it comes to defending democracy against partisan gerrymandering, the best way is to vote out the Republicans in the United States Senate and the White House, then pass the Redistricting Reform Act that was co-sponsored by 79 Democrats in the U.S House of Representatives, an act that would require every state to establish a multiparty, independent redistricting commission, and do away with partisan gerrymandering for good.