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Is gerrymandering “poisoning the well” of democracy?

Every ten years, the federal government administers the Census to determine the size of the population as well as how that population is distributed within and across states. These figures are then used to allocates seats within the US House of Representatives. States that grow faster than the rest of the country typically gain seats, necessarily at the expense of states that have lost residents or have experienced the slowest growth. Even states that do not gain or lose seats still witness shifts in their population, with urban areas normally growing faster than more rural ones. Therefore, states must redraw their congressional boundaries to ensure equal populations within districts.

However, this process is often used to satisfy partisan ends. The majority of states within the US empower their legislature to craft district boundaries. Therefore, whichever party wins a majority in the state legislature has considerable power to determine a party’s chances of winning a federal seat in subsequent elections. This process, called partisan gerrymandering, has led to a common refrain among disaffected citizens: politicians are choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians.

In response to this, many states have moved away from legislature-based redistricting. One of the most common alternatives is the implementation of a redistricting commission. In 2018 alone, five states passed amendments or initiatives that either created commissions or at least curtailed the power of the state legislature with respect to redistricting.

What can we expect as a result of this change? Some scholarship suggests that taking the power to draw districts away from state legislatures results in more competitive elections, more open seat races, more experienced candidates, fewer uncontested elections, more compact districts, and districts that better respect existing political boundaries like city and county lines.

However, there is not a consensus on the matter. Other research suggests that commission maps are not considerably different from legislature-based alternatives that could have been enacted, geographic sorting and partisan polarization present too much of a hurdle for commissions to have an effect, or that any observed differences between commission and legislature-drawn districts disappear throughout the ten-year lifespan a redistricting plan.

Nevertheless, many citizens today have exhibited displeasure with the redistricting process. Recent polls have demonstrated considerable disapproval for the practice of gerrymandering, as shown in the chart below. Strikingly, this negative view is not only overwhelming but consistent across partisans and independents as well.

The US Supreme Court has heard many cases related to partisan gerrymandering, but consistently argues that it presents a political question that cannot be adjudicated by the Court. What does this mean for the next redistricting cycle? Partisan gerrymandering will continue to pervade some states’ plans, calls for reform will continue, and citizens’ dissatisfaction is likely to grow.

What does citizen satisfaction matter? Evidence suggests that voters are more trusting and overall more satisfied with government and elections when they view the process as legitimate. Therefore, regardless of whether or not commission-based plans produce significantly different electoral outcomes, voters may be more accepting of those outcomes if the commission provides them with added legitimacy.

Another important question that has received recent attention is how to count the incarcerated population. In most states, incarcerated individuals are counted as residents of the districts that house the prison instead of the individual’s home address. However, nine states have outlawed prison gerrymandering, and seven of those states will draw maps counting incarcerated individuals at their home address for the first time during the 2020 redistricting cycle.

Substantial research exists showing how prison populations are used to skew representation away from urban areas in favor or more rural ones. The maps below illustrate how New York’s ban on prison gerrymandering altered the distribution of incarcerated residents across the state. As such, we can expect substantial changes in the electoral environment in other states that have enacted similar reforms.

Percentage of Incarcerated Persons in New York State Assembly Districts (L) Before the Prison Gerrymandering Ban, (R) After the Prison Gerrymandering Ban

In the current climate—marked by effective polarization, negative partisanship, misinformation, disinformation, and low approval of individual politicians as well as government institutions as a whole—there are likely going to be hard fought battles, legal and political, over congressional district boundaries. The results of these battles will carry important consequences for who runs and wins in these elections, the policy these officials ultimately create, as well as the overall attitudes of citizens towards their government.


Featured image by Jonathan Simcoe

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