As the 2016 general elections grow nearer, questions surface regarding voting rights and fairness, as is typical in election years. One element of elections that can alter voting fairness, and election results, is the drawing of district lines. In response to one dispute on this topic, the US Supreme Court decided in late June to take on a case that may impact voters in two electoral districts in North Carolina.
Electoral districts are regions that organize votes during elections. Voters elect representatives from Congressional districts in each state to serve in the US House of Representatives. Districts for each state legislature are used to elect politicians into state governments. These districts are intended to ensure that citizens in every region of every state have adequate representation in both state and federal legislatures.
According to the US Constitution, each state is required to redraw its congressional districts every 10 years, following the census that the federal government conducts to count the country’s population. Each state is responsible for determining and implementing the method it will use to complete this task. For example, in April Illinois established a new plan to create a Senate Redistricting Commission and a House Redistricting Commission, with no more than 5 members of the same political party on each commission.
Various types of such commissions exist in different states, each with unique requirements. According to Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School, several states have advisory commissions that make recommendations to the legislature regarding district boundaries.
The commissions created in Illinois are classified as political commissions because some elected officials can serve on them. Alternatively, several states conduct redistricting through independent commissions with no elected officials. Most states, however, have no redistricting commission and that task remains a responsibility of their state legislatures.
Some redistricting commissions are designed to avoid the creation of districts that unfairly benefit certain political parties or populations. They attempt to comply with a federal law requiring that districts be drawn to provide equal opportunities for minorities to participate in elections and elect their chosen candidates. The North Carolina case that the Supreme Court will address this fall involves compliance with this requirement.
Concerns about the fairness of district lines have existed since 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a law that drew district lines to benefit the Jeffersonian Republican political party. A political opponent believed that one of the new districts was so misshapen that it appeared similar to a salamander. The phrase “gerrymander,” combining Governor “Gerry” and “salamander,” was thus coined to describe the redrawing of districts to benefit one party over others.
Gerrymandering can occur through several strategies. One way decision-makers can gerrymander is to “pack” voters who oppose the powerful party into a limited number of districts. This method keeps the opposition voters out of other districts, limiting their voting power so they can only elect their chosen candidates within the few “packed” districts. The other districts can then be controlled by voters who support the party in power. The North Carolina Supreme Court case concerns whether minority voters were packed into two districts to benefit the Republican party in the state overall.
Another gerrymandering method is to “crack” the opposition voters into various districts. This distribution places such a small minority of opposition voters in each district that the candidates they support are highly unlikely to be elected from any of those districts. Additional gerrymandering methods sometimes occur along with packing and cracking.
One concern with gerrymandering is that it benefits major parties over other political alignments. Senator Susan Collins expressed in 2015, that “As a consequence of packing highly partisan voters into discrete districts, moderates and independents are marginalized and their influence diminished.”
Collins also claimed that gerrymandering leads to “politics destroying the sense of community built by history and geography.” Collins expresses the viewpoint, shared with others, that gerrymandering threatens the power of voters to draw on their community values that develop regionally over time because it can divide such communities into separate districts.
Another issue sometimes raised regarding gerrymandering is that it often favors incumbent politicians over candidates who seek to enter a position for the first time.
Wes Neuman, a 2014 Congressional candidate, claimed, “For decades politicians in Florida selfishly drew legislative and Congressional districts to protect themselves or advance the interests of their political parties. So effective and unabashed was this gerrymandering, that over the last decade only a small fraction of legislative incumbents were defeated.”
Two additional concerns have been raised in the upcoming North Carolina case: that Republicans are particularly associated with gerrymandering and that gerrymandering is done with intentions to limit the voting power of racial minorities.
Republicans deny an association between their party and unfair redistricting. In an instance in which the Republicans were accused of packing black and Latino voters to limit their voting power, the party argued that their redistricting was in compliance with law. They claimed that the number of districts in which minorities were likely to win remained the same as in previous years. The Republican party maintained that despite objections of Latinos and blacks being denied equal voting power, the district lines were legal.
Some view gerrymandering as a problem stemming from both sides of the political spectrum. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, for example, claimed that “redistricting reform is not a partisan issue but an issue that all Marylanders — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — should embrace and actively push to enact.”
New Mexico Senator Tom Udall aims to combat gerrymandering and gave the statement that gerrymandered districts are, “drawn to keep the majority party in power.” These perspectives indicate a sense that both parties use gerrymandering to their advantage when they are in power.
Amidst the various interests and statements of unease that surround gerrymandering, politicians and courts seek what they view as reasonable solutions. Some politicians pursue legislative action. Senator Udall introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act into the US Senate in February. The act would require each state to use an independent and bipartisan redistricting commission. Other approaches involve the courts, such as the North Carolina case and another case regarding packing in Virginia.
The topic of redistricting elicits reactions from all sides because its effects are heavily felt in elections; no party wishes to be disadvantaged due to district lines. Conflicting interests continue to seek a balance between majority power, geography, and the concept of fair elections. Although the Virginia and North Carolina Supreme Court cases will not be decided in time to affect the 2016 elections, upcoming judicial and legislative actions will likely have great impacts on district lines that will affect future elections.
Wren Greaney is a student at UC Davis, majoring in History. She is currently interning with Vote Smart in the Special Interest Groups Department. For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at email@example.com or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.