Gerrymandering locks out democracy

July 19, 2022

From the July-August 2022 issue of News & Letters

by Buddy Bell

Much has been said about the way the U.S. Senate is tilted toward Republicans, who dominate many rural states, each with two Senators no matter how low the population. What is less understood is the Republican advantage in the other chamber on Capitol Hill, and they are expected to also retain an edge there for at least another 10 years.


A map of Texas’ 38 Congressional districts. Republican mapmakers “packed” Democratic voters in the metropolitan areas of Houston and Dallas to create more safely Republican districts elsewhere

Once per decade, the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are reapportioned according to population shift within and among states. There must be a district map that assigns each seat to represent the residents of a specific geographical area. On the state, county, and municipal government levels, legislative seats might also have to be changed and the district maps redrawn.

Gerrymandering is a phenomenon at each one of these levels. Gerrymandering is a technique for a political party to gain unearned influence. The party which controls the drawing of new maps can pack opposition voters into a small number of districts so they lose everywhere else. Or if the opposition is small, the map-drawers can make sure the offending population is dispersed over several districts so that they are a minority in each of them. (Example: Salt Lake City is split among all four of Utah’s Congressional districts.)

Geography itself sets a limit on this process: if a person’s address did not statistically correlate to how they vote, gerrymandering would not be possible. However, in modern politics it does correlate. In this age of data sharing and analysis, modern mapping software can draw very effective gerrymanders.


State legislatures are empowered with drawing their own districts and also the federal ones for the national House. As a result, there are some states where the out-party is never going to be able to gain control of the legislature even in an epic wave election, and so they are unlikely to ever reverse or undo gerrymandered maps simply by appealing to voters. (Exception: specific referendum, as in Michigan in 2018.)

As of July, most of the maps that will be used for the next 10 years have been finalized. From a national view, the sums have not changed much from the past decade. Supposing that somehow the nationwide Congressional vote went exactly half to Democrats and half to Republicans, then Republicans should end up winning an average of 225 districts/seats and Democrats 210, according to an analysis by prediction company FiveThirtyEight. What this means is national Democrats must over-perform just to barely get a House majority, and it’s possible for Republicans to sometimes win a majority without “earning” it (by winning the most votes overall).

In early spring, it looked like Democrats were ready to shrink or even close that gap. The state parties in blue states drew aggressive gerrymanders on top of what were already advantageous maps in Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon. But then, Republicans made their gerrymanders stronger in red and purple states they control, including Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Texas. In addition, successful court challenges to the new Democratic maps canceled the gains in New York and Maryland.


Democrats suffered a few more legal setbacks in Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republicans successfully prevented any mapping reforms. The Supreme Court granted emergency “relief” to Alabama Republicans so they could temporarily keep a map in place which draws six majority-white districts and one majority-Black district. Since Alabama’s population is about 1/3 Black, an objective Court might logically be expected to insist on a map that draws at least two majority-Black districts out of seven, but this case won’t actually be decided until after the 2022 election. The precedent made here will also likely resolve similar legal questions coming down the pike in Louisiana and Florida.

Voting is still important, but there’s no way for a person to “vote harder.” We must also explore other ways to work for change: protesting, creating, organizing in the workplace, speaking with others to combat misinformation. That can include challenging the media when they describe a House changeover as a “landslide” election.

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