Gerrymandering: The Suppression of Blacks, Hispanics, and Students

Member Discrimination, Law, Local Politics

Should Representatives Choose Their Voters?

Gerrymandering, the controversial, undemocratic practice of representatives choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives, is once again in the country’s headlines.

For much of the United States’ history, the practice of gerrymandering was used to dilute or otherwise exclude the potential influence of minority (mostly African-American) voting districts so that whites would remain the majority everywhere, even when they weren’t physically located in a particular area.

Today, gerrymandering is illegal when it is carried out in explicitly racial terms, but so long as it remains implicit––treated as merely a matter of political parties ensuring party success––it is apparently completely legal. The gerrymandering problem is about racial justice and democracy. First, let us consider the origin of the term “gerrymandering” so that we can come to an adequate solution.

The term gerrymandering is a result of a strange combination of words: the last name of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge “Gerry” and a salamander. It originated in the early 1800s while Governor Gerry was busy redrawing the state map to enable his preferred electoral outcome in 1812. The district lines were drawn in such a bizarre way that parts of Boston resembled a salamander.

Though the term stuck, the initial sense of injustice did not, that is, until recently when Republicans began to find themselves affected by it as well.

A simple solution would be to revert gerrymandering back to county lines in every state. This would ensure fair vote majorities around the nation. Another could be through the next sitting Democratic president, who could accomplish this through an executive order. States that choose not to revert to county lines would have their federal funds denied until they redistrict.

However, in June 2019, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote that the redrawing of congressional maps is not unconstitutional. They claimed that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to reallocate power to political parties. The dissenting side correctly stated that in an increasingly partisan government, it is the Court’s duty to protect individuals whose rights are being infringed and ensure free and fair elections for all.

Following from the 2011 Wisconsin-based case, Gill v. Whitford, in which it was decided that nothing could be done about Republicans gerrymandering Democrats, the cases discussed above––those the Supreme Court ruled on––stem from North Carolina and Maryland. In both instances one party was unduly favored over another due to redistricting. What makes Gill v. Whitford unique, however, is that in this case, both Democrats and Republicans were negatively affected, not only Democrats.

Gerrymandering, whether racially or party-based, is derived from two different types of strategies. Both are intended to ensure that a favored party wins a particular election through the redrawing of electoral boundaries. These two strategies are termed “cracking” and “packing.” Cracking divides the opposition between multiple districts so they can’t form a unified majority, while packing unites the opposition into a single district, so that all others can be carried by the preferred party. Both have been used to halt the progress of equal voting.

The next sitting Democratic president could alter the course by executive order of reverting back to county lines, or it could be passed by Congress at the federal level. Failure to comply with the new changes would result in state funding being withheld until the lines have changed. If Trump remains in power, it is unlikely that he would sign such a bill, but given that Republicans can also lose in swing states where Democrats have experienced success, such as in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, an honest voting system will benefit everyone in the end.

Predictably, just as with opposition to other measures intended to expand voter participation (such as automatic voter registration), opposition to ending gerrymandering practices has tended to prevail in red states as well. Depending on which party is in power, this has included swing states, especially those that have been governed by Republicans over the course of the past decade (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio). As soon as Republicans gain power, one of the first acts they have engaged in is to ensure they’ll be able to retain the power they’ve gained.

However, such behavior has also been the case in Democratic areas, where urban zones are divided to prevent suburbs and rural areas from predominating, as has occurred in Chicago, or in more recent cases, Maryland. For the most part though, Republican willingness to exploit gerrymandering has greatly outweighed the timidity of Democrats who often want to be seen as proceeding ethically, even if they lose. The issue facing the nation currently is that while explicitly racially based gerrymandering has been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, party-based gerrymandering has not.

Ironically, the argument against gerrymandering would have been appreciated by Madison, one of the main contributors to the Constitution’s “balance of powers,” which was intended to be balanced in a way that would benefit both majority and minority groups without having to address any undue influence of an overwhelming majority “faction.” The fact that Governor Gerry was Madison’s vice president is no small paradox, though it is a resolvable one.

The time to act is now.

George Freeman