Even before a single vote was cast in 2016, decisions made years ago were working to shape the results of November’s election. Usually, the government that is elected when Americans go to the polls reflects the majority of the votes cast. But district lines can be manipulated—a tactic known as gerrymandering—and election districts carved up in ways that block voters from having their voices heard and receiving fair representation.
Every 10 years, states redraw their voting maps so that their election districts accommodate population changes after the census. In 2010, Republican led state legislatures undertook a massive effort to redraw their state’s districts for electing members of Congress and state legislatures at the expense of minority and Democratic voters. A memo from the Republican State Leadership Committee explained:
Drawing new district lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented [Republicans] the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.
Some of the new district maps “packed” African American voters into one or two districts, minimizing their influence in neighboring districts, and districts were drawn based on their partisan makeup in order to favor GOP candidates.
This gerrymandering led to the incongruous result between voter preference and the outcome of the 2012 election. In 2012, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives in Congress received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans held a 234-201 majority of the seats after the election. That was the first time since 1972 that the party with the most votes did not elect the most representatives to Congress. A similar mismatch happened again in 2014, when Republican candidates received 52 percent of the votes but won 57 percent of the seats. This mismatched result has also occurred at the state level. For example, despite Democrats in Ohio winning more than 50 percent of the popular vote cast for the state Legislature in 2012, Democratic members held just 39 of 99 of seats in the wake of that election. In five other state legislatures, people cast more votes for candidates from one of the major parties, but the other party still controlled the state legislature. This year, there may very well be another staggering disparity between votes cast and the control of state and national legislative bodies.
Voters have a right to choose the politicians who become elected leaders rather than have politicians serve their own electoral interests by shifting district lines as a means to choose groups of voters. But in too many places, politicians have manipulated the districts to keep themselves and their party in power by way of these gerrymandering schemes. They use improper racial and partisan considerations to draw districts that advantage their own narrow interests at the expense of communities that are blocked from meaningful political representation. These tricks may hold back the growing political power of the rising American electorate, but they reveal no sustainable nor respectable path toward governing power.
The result undermines democratic tenets of fair representation, equity, and competitive elections where voters can exercise real accountability over their representatives. This kind of political deck stacking, wherein those who are already elected get to choose which voters will determine if they are re-elected, is one factor that can prevent competition and ensure incumbent candidates keep their seats. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are re-elected 95 percent and 82 percent of the time, respectively. In the upcoming election, just 10 percent of the 435 House seats are considered competitive.
Another danger of gerrymandering is that it leaves government officials largely unresponsive to many of their constituents. On the state level, fewer than 2 in 5 voters feel that their state legislatures do a good job of representing them, while 65 percent report an overall feeling of dissatisfaction with their government representation. On the federal level, the damaging effects of manipulating districts is becoming more apparent. For example, tailor-made districts that were created by some Republican lawmakers in 2010 are directly linked to recent infighting within the GOP. Many of those districts have generated a new breed of far-right Republican members of Congress, running safely in mostly white, older, and rural districts. This type of redistricting risks drawing representatives “into an ideological cul-de-sac” that leaves them vulnerable to challengers at the far end of the political spectrum. This is precisely what Republican lawmakers are seeing in heavily gerrymandered districts in the South and the Midwest, as well as in upstate and rural New York.
Voters are fighting for fair representation and challenging gerrymandered districts in court. Courts have struck down district lines in Florida and Alabama after they were found to be “taint[ed]” by an “intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents” and to discriminate against African American voters, respectively. Redistricting plans in places such as Wisconsin and Maryland are still being challenged in court. Since around 2010, 224 lawsuits challenging district lines have been filed, 32 of which are still active. In at least thirteen of those cases, states were ordered to redraw their districts. Wisconsin’s 2012 redistricting plan is awaiting a decision from a federal court; it was passed by the state’s Legislature after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin concluded that the state’s 2011 plan violated the Voting Rights Act. If the federal court strikes down the 2012 plan, Wisconsin will have been ordered to redraw their districts twice over just a four-year period because of improper gerrymandering.
The Supreme Court has said that while voting behavior may be considered in drawing electoral districts, too much weight given to partisanship or race is unconstitutional. The Court has failed, however, to state decidedly how much is too much. This may change in the coming months, as the Supreme Court will hear two redistricting cases coming out of Virginia and North Carolina, both of which concern the permissibility of using race as a predominate factor for consideration in drawing electoral districts. In Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, a group of voters claim that the Virginia General Assembly violated the rights of African American voters in using a racial quota to pack voters into a dozen of the 100 districts for the state’s House of Delegates, diminishing that community’s electoral power in the state as a whole. A federal court had ruled previously that the districts were constitutional and that race had not been the main motivation in creating the district map.
In McCrory v. Harris, opponents of racial gerrymandering say that North Carolina’s congressional map unfairly packs black voters into two districts that were already electing the African American community’s preferred representatives, thus diluting their influence in neighboring districts. Earlier this year, a federal court agreed after it found that race was the predominant factor in drawing two congressional districts, and it ordered the state to redraw maps for the congressional primary. The way the Supreme Court comes down on these cases will set boundaries for how voting districts are drawn for the next several decades and will directly affect the overall fairness of representation delivered through our electoral system.
At this point, the redistricting schemes being challenged in the courts will not be overturned before November’s elections, and legal challenges to redistricting plans are not likely to stop anytime soon. Indeed, litigation over redistricting is likely to continue following the next census in 2020.
Major reform is needed to draw election districts in a way that is fair, transparent, and impartial. Some states are leading the way to ensure that it is the voters who choose their representatives—not the other way around. Some states, for example, have taken the redistricting process out of the hands of political parties and instead use independent commissions to draw the lines. Legislatures can also set appropriate criteria to consider when drawing these maps. The criteria could include barring consideration of party affiliation and voting records and maintaining communities of interest and neighborhoods when possible. All states should require transparency and public input into the redistricting process. Following November’s election, more states must adopt rules for redistricting processes that lead to responsive, reflective, and fair representation for people. Congress can also legislate to fix the process for drawing congressional election districts to prevent manipulation and to encourage electoral competition, fair representation, and accountability.
Our elections are more important than ever. Americans deserve a representative government that will champion solutions. A fair electoral system that is impartial and transparent—and where representation reflects the will of the people—is vital to the health of our democracy, and drawing fair election districts is critical to meeting that goal.
Liz Kennedy is the Director of Government and Democratic Reform at the Center for American Progress. Danielle Root is the Voting Rights Manager at the Center.