If you’ve taken a political science class or even a high school government class, you’ve heard of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when legislative districts are drawn to give one party an advantage come election season. It’s why, despite occasional Democratic popular vote victories like in 2018 and 2020, the Michigan legislature remains under strict Republican control. It’s why, in 2016, Republicans won nine of Michigan’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — over 64% of the seats — with only 48% of the vote. Gerrymandering is one of the simplest, most flagrant acts of political corruption in an age defined by corruption. It is a decennial tradition that both parties partake in, which is why it’s such a common topic in civics education. In 2018, over 60% of Michigan voters approved an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission to create state and federal districts for the 2022 elections. The commission, which is today hard at work crafting fair districts, is designed to prevent a partisan state legislature from choosing their voters.
Michigan is not the only state to hand control to an independent commission. California began doing so a decade ago, ending an era of gerrymandering by the solidly Democratic state legislature. Hawaii, another liberal stronghold, started using a citizens’ commission in the early 1980s. Colorado, New Jersey and Washington, all with unified control of state government in the hands of Democrats, also hand control to a commission — Colorado for the first time. Washington and New Jersey adopted bipartisan commissions in 1983 and 1995, respectively. And of the traditionally Republican states, which do the same? Idaho and Montana, for a grand total of four Congressional districts. Both parties ruthlessly abusing the redistricting process has been a consistent fact of American political life. However, as we progress into the 2020s, things seem to be changing. Perhaps due to the increased attention Democrats have given to voting rights, states that have taken concrete action against partisan abuse tend to be states where Democrats would really benefit from some partisan abuse.
Unlike Democrats, the GOP has maintained its grip on the redrawing process in many of their largest strongholds. In preparation for the 2022 midterms, they’re pushing that advantage almost everywhere. In Texas, the current map proposals would give the state’s two newly awarded seats and one additional existing seat to Republican candidates. In Ohio, where 56% of the popular vote yields 12 of 16 seats, the voter-approved independent commission recently gave up trying to apportion seats fairly, giving the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature a chance to drop the Democrats to just three seats. Republicans in Tennessee are considering slicing Nashville into multiple red districts instead of one blue one. North Carolina Republicans, legendary among gerrymandering advocates, have proposed maps giving them up to 11 of the state’s 14 seats. That last case is notable because North Carolina is a swing state. Republicans hold unified control of state government, and thus control over redistricting, in three (North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) of the eight states with a margin of less than 5% in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats control only Nevada.
Republicans control the redistricting process in far more states than Democrats do, and they appear to be using that advantage extensively. This is happening while Democrats leave their biggest electoral strength, California, free of intense gerrymandering. Democrats’ best chance of countering their opponents is to gerrymander the 11 states they still control as much as possible. In New York, congressional maps are being drawn by an advisory committee. The key detail here is that the New York legislature can completely ignore the committee’s advice. New York Democrats are reportedly preparing to do just that, allowing them to gerrymander away five of the GOP’s eight seats. Illinois Democrats are preparing to pass a map ‒ lamented by Republicans as “America’s most extreme gerrymander” ‒ that would eliminate two Republican seats.
Admittedly, gerrymandering in blue states is blatantly hypocritical, particularly while Democrats are decrying Republican gerrymandering efforts around the country. Continuing to abuse the redistricting process contradicts a critical part of the left’s voting rights agenda, too. Congressional Democrats have sponsored bills like H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which plainly bans gerrymandering. It would put all potential maps to an objective statistical test, striking any that give a party a statewide electoral advantage. The pared-down Freedom to Vote Act supported by the entirety of the Democratic caucus — even the stalwart centrists — contains similar measures to restrict gerrymandering. The Freedom to Vote Act has, unsurprisingly, stalled in the Senate. Democrats have offered to restrict gerrymandering through federal legislation, Republicans have refused to allow a vote, forcing Democrats to gerrymander or enter the 2022 midterms at a disadvantage.
Of course, banning gerrymandering need not be tied to any electoral reform. Gerrymandering is wildly unpopular: 93% of Americans see it as a problem in U.S. elections. If Democrats are serious about their desire to end gerrymandering and Republicans truly want to avoid increasingly gerrymandered blue states, a simple act of Congress should please both. But refusing to gerrymander in the few states they still can is a political stunt which, however noble, will only hamper Democrats’ ability to legislate in the remainder of Joe Biden’s presidency. If they are able to win enough seats they could pass H.R. 1 and ban partisan gerrymandering, something Congressional Republicans have not yet proposed. Yes, action in Illinois and New York represents escalated Democratic gerrymandering compared to ten years ago, but it is necessary to match Republican efforts across the country. Instead of moderate gerrymandering in dozens of states, Democrats’ only option is extreme gerrymandering in a few blue states. It is not needless partisanship as much as a necessary counterbalance.
There is reason to hope in all of this. Michigan, a politically contentious swing state, deciding to allocate seats fairly is representative of how much closer we are to a legislature free of gerrymandering. Fully eliminating centuries-old corruption, though, requires federal action. Democrats’ state-level fight only seems to work in states they control. It’s creating an imbalance with no national gain — gerrymandering still exists. Until both parties agree to bury the practice, Democrats must continue to aggressively gerrymander wherever they still can.
Quin Zapoli is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.