On Sept. 2, the University of Michigan hosted the first of a series of meetings of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) held at college campuses around the state. These meetings are intended to offer a space for Michigan residents to voice their perspectives on the state’s ongoing nonpartisan redistricting process.
MICRC was first instituted in 2018 following the approval of Proposal 2 by Michigan voters. The proposal took the power of redistricting away from the state legislature and placed it in the hands of an independent commission, which now has the authority from the Michigan Constitution to redraw congressional and state legislative districts. This redistricting cycle is the first in Michigan to be led by an independent commission, and many other states have already instituted similar commissions to lead nonpartisan redistricting.
Proposal 2 was intended to reduce gerrymandering in Michigan, something that historically prevented Michiganders from being accurately represented in Congress and the state legislature. It is commendable that Michigan voters in 2018 recognized that the quality of our democracy would improve if a nonpartisan entity was in control of redistricting. But even though Michigan took this major step toward ending gerrymandering, many other states still allow their state legislatures to control congressional redistricting.
Gerrymandering aims to divide voters in a way that favors the party in charge. It does this in two ways: Legislators either pack the opposing party’s supporters into as few districts as possible or divide them into many districts to prevent them from gaining a majority in those districts. While there are general guidelines for redistricting — including compactness, preservation of communities’ boundaries and contiguity — states often ignore these guidelines when redistricting.
This can lead to oddly shaped districts, such as Maryland’s third congressional district, which a federal judge said was “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl.” Some of these obscenely gerrymandered districts led to lawsuits that forced states to draw new maps prior to mandatory redistricting after the 2020 census.
It is understandable why partisan state legislatures gerrymander; parties want to give themselves the best possible chance to win seats, and legislators who draw these maps want to protect themselves and their seats as well. But this partisan practice gravely harms democracy in the United States. Any steps taken to intentionally prevent voters from having their voices heard in government is an insult to democracy.
It is important to note that gerrymandering is not a partisan issue — both parties do it. Currently, two of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S. are Maryland and North Carolina, whose legislatures were respectively controlled by Democrats and Republicans, in 2011. Both states intentionally gerrymandered for their party’s gain, causing each party to gain additional seats in their states relative to the vote share of each party. North Carolina was so badly gerrymandered that in 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to draw new districts in 2017.
There are two ways to prevent partisan bodies from drawing district lines. One is for the federal government to ban gerrymandering through legislation. The For the People Act, or H.R.1, attempts to do just that; but, it will likely fail to pass in the Senate. The Supreme Court could also act, but recently “ruled that lawsuits over partisan gerrymandering raise a political question that is beyond the reach of the federal courts,” according to The Hill.
This leaves the decision to the states, which is far less promising. A federal law or Supreme Court decision would force every state to comply rather than leaving it to state lawmakers or asking citizens to organize ballot initiatives. There is little incentive for lawmakers to ban gerrymandering themselves. But it must be done to ensure American elections accurately represent the voice of the people.
However, eliminating gerrymandering would not solve the whole problem. Because Democrats are tightly packed in cities large and small, and Republicans tend to be more spread out, it is difficult to draw districts that adequately reflect the vote share in states.
While ending gerrymandering would not completely eliminate the problems in our democracy, it must be done to ensure as equal representation as possible at the state and federal levels. The current system in many states, in which partisan legislatures draw the maps of their own districts, encourages politicians to play dirty. A mandate to end gerrymandering, either from the state or federal level, would allow Americans to be fairly represented and would allow their voices to be heard.
Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.