Gerrymandering: The Increasingly Bipartisan Partisan Tool

With each state having a certain number of representatives that can be elected to the House of Representatives, states are tasked with figuring out how to map the districts for each representative.  The Supreme Court case Wesberry v. Sanders states that each of these districts must have populations that are equal “as nearly as practicable”.  There are other requirements that are enforced by only some states at the state level too, such as contiguity (all parts of the district should be next to each other), compactness (people in a district should live as closely to each other as possible), incorporating communities of interest (making sure a certain compact community is in one district), or having congressional districts boundaries match county or municipal lines.  Furthermore, some states have implemented more nonpartisan ways of determining the makeup of districts than having this process go through state legislatures, such as either having an independent commission solely determine the boundaries or having that commission work with the state legislature.

The four extra requirements for districting, as well as the existence of independent commissions for this task, are not federally mandated.  Because of this, some states are more able to easily craft districts that, although each have nearly the same population, are shaped in a way that includes or excludes certain people for one party’s political gain, a process known as gerrymandering.

Recently, Republicans in state legislatures have been the culprits of this.  This could be seen in North Carolina.  With North Carolina being a state where the General Assembly (North Carolina’s state legislature) is the sole architect of the state’s congressional districts, Republicans controlling the General Assembly in 2011 took a congressional map that had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and reconstructed the map in a way that Democrats would be heavily concentrated in four districts, while Republicans would hold nine, more than twice the number of Democrat seats.  Looking at the map, one can see how obscure some of the districts looked.  District 9, which contained areas in and around Charlotte that were mostly made up of Democrats of color, was two clusters joined together by a seemingly nonexistent strip of land along the South Carolina border.  This district also had 120,000 more people than the average district population, which was 733,499.  The most infamous district on the map was District 12, which was first gerrymandered in 1993.  In an effort to put Democrats of color from Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Durham all in one district, the district was sometimes only as narrow as the I-85 highway.  In 2015, the map was redrawn to ensure that ten Republicans could represent North Carolina in the House instead of nine.  In 2016, in the federal case Cooper v. Harris, the General Assembly was forced to redraw the 1st and 12th district from drawing voters of color into too few districts, but since they were forced to change the districts for racial reasons, Republicans in the chambers were still able to draw a partisan map.  This advance by state Republicans was ruled unconstitutional in 2019.  After this forced redistricting, where Republicans were not allowed to draw lines based on party interests, Democrats flipped two seats.

The same can be seen in Pennsylvania in 2011, another state that had left the powers of drawing constituencies solely to state legislatures.  Republicans controlling the state legislature limited most Democrat votes to only five of the state’s 18 districts.  In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the map was unconstitutional for being too partisan, and they mandated that the state legislature redraw the map.  They could not produce a map that was nonpartisan enough, with each attempt being vetoed by Democrat Governor Tom Wolf, and, eventually, the state Supreme Court drew and adopted a more nonpartisan map itself, conforming to county and municipal lines rather than political ones.  This new map was used for the first time in the 2018 general election, and Democrats flipped four seats.

This year, redistricting is bound to happen in 13 states as a result of the census that is taken every ten years.  Not only does the census determine the demographic makeup of this country, but it also determines how many seats each state should have in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The year after the census is counted, when the amount of House seats allowed for each state is released, there are usually a handful of states that either gain or lose seats.  New York, Illinois, California, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan are each losing one seat.  Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Florida, and North Carolina are all gaining one seat, and Texas is gaining two.

Blue states, such as New York, Washington, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois, did experience changes in the amount of House seats they had after the 2010 census, but the red states at this point were the only culprits in gerrymandering as a result of this.  North Carolina and Pennsylvania are two of the states that are going to have to redistrict as a result of the census this year, and there is definitely a lot of hope that these states, whose state legislatures are both still controlled by Republicans, will not repeat history by gerrymandering.  In the midst of the gerrymandering scandals that have been carried out by Republicans in the past ten years, Democrats have claimed the moral high ground by opposing this maneuver, but for the first time in recent history, states with Democrat-controlled legislatures are considering the same tactics to further their own political gains.

New York is supposed to lose one House seat from the results of the census, and they use their state legislature to determine the shape of the House districts.  Lawmakers in Albany are currently working to eliminate as many Republicans from being able to be elected in the House as possible, taking aims to concentrate Republican voters on Long Island to one district and to make the district encompassing Staten Island to include more liberal areas of the city to prevent a Republican from winning there.  They are also proposing merging sparsely populated Republican districts upstate.  Facing backlash from the Republicans and Democrats alike, Democrats in Albany are justifying their intentions by saying that if they play things too fairly, the Republicans could end up controlling the House in 2022, especially since Republicans very well may gerrymander in states whose legislatures they control.  If Democrats in Albany get their way, there is an opportunity for 23 of New York’s 26 seats to be controlled by Democrats.  Currently, 21 out of New York’s 27 seats are controlled by Democrats, meaning that even though the state is losing seats, it would increase its Democratic representation in the House by two seats.

Illinois, another state where the Democrat-controlled state legislature has sole control over the redistricting process, is also working on gerrymandering for the upcoming congressional elections after losing one House seat.  By creating unreasonably narrow districts that stretch across the width of the state, rather than ensuring that the districts exercise any contiguity or compactness, Illinois Democrats are working to limit the number of Republicans who can be elected in the state to the House to three.  This new map would also add a Democrat that could represent Illinois in the House, despite the state losing one seat from the census.  After a failed first attempt, the state legislature proposed a second highly partisan map, which was approved by the state senate.  Democrat Governor J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign this map into law soon.

With Democrats turning to gerrymandering, a practice that they have denounced for the past ten years, does this prove that they are just as power-hungry as Republicans, or is this just a necessary effort to counter the overrepresentation that Republicans want to facilitate in the House through their own gerrymandering?