This brief delves into the intricacies of the Gerrymanding policies in the United States, particularly what they mean. The brief also explains the far-reaching implications of the policies and how they have evolved across the board.
Gerrymandering is no stranger to the United States of America. Dating back to 18th Century English Parliament, lines have been redrawn to create favorable conditions for candidates in places called “rotten boroughs.” These practices carried over to colonial America but were not as fully developed until America became divided amongst the political parties of the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists.
In the early 19th century, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry was infamous for redrawing State districts to benefit his party, the Democratic-Republicans. The term “gerrymandering” is a mix of “Gerry” and “salamander.” Though Gerry did not create gerrymandering, he is most famous for how prominent his gerrymandering was in Massachusetts. Federalist papers printed about the mass corruption in their opposing party, as the Democratic-Republicans received 49% of the vote but represented 29 out of 40 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Eventually, the Federalists won back the power in the state and redrew the districts to be more fair to all.
However, gerrymandering would continue in the United States. After the end of the Civil War, black men were recognized as citizens of the USA. Southern men were quick to redraw the districts to benefit the Democratic party, which the Southern white men most widely supported at the time. They attempted to put all the black voters into one district. However, since most people in the South voting were white men voting Democrat, the need to redraw the districts was lost. North Carolina’s 12th district famously became known as the “1-85 district,” as it became so narrow at one point it was more narrow than the highway itself.
Of course, this is now illegal, as this was done at a time when state legislatures let states pick how to redraw their districts. Then came the “Reapportionment Revolution” under Chief Justice Earl Warren, where a series of court cases were passed making redistricting illegal. Ultimately, the USA Census was formulated under the impression that all districts would represent the same number of people under a representative from the House with a redrawing every ten years. This would make it so that districts would be of varying sizes but would ultimately all represent the same population to squash unfairness.
Though the Census makes the redrawing more fair, groups like the Brennan Center for Justice still advocate for voting fairness.
The American democratic system depends on the citizen’s right to vote, but one key technicality that has been exploited countless times throughout history is gerrymandering, which is the act of changing political boundaries such that it favors a specific group of people rather than being equitable to all people. Political officials commit gerrymandering to give them a leg up in elections and re-elections. For example, they might focus all of the populations with people of color in them into a singular voting group, so they can’t make an impact on all of the other voting districts and potentially overturn decisions there. As a result, one of the most important tasks for us is to look into how policy can prevent gerrymandering from happening and destroy a more fair democratic system from taking shape.
Currently, the biggest piece of legislation in place to combat gerrymandering is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is a piece of legislation that is oriented toward preventing racial discrimination in voting. This act has had a unique impact on gerrymandering because one of the simplest uses of gerrymandering is to form districts around condensing certain races, which may potentially be harmful to someone’s campaign into a singular district, so they can’t hurt the campaigner’s other voting districts which they are more likely to win. As a result, the Voting Rights Act can combat the race-based gerrymandering that currently happens. In 2022 the NAACP sued Thomas Alexander, the president of South Carolina’s senate, because of clear indications of gerrymandering in the map and an indication that it was done based on race. Thus, the Supreme Court ruling on this case will be something that shapes how racial gerrymandering works in the US.
One key piece of legislation that was proposed was The Freedom to Vote Act, which is oriented toward solving partisan gerrymandering, protecting voting rights, and improving campaign finances. The Freedom to Vote Act can help combat gerrymandering because of its requirements for strict and uniform rules for congressional redistricting, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering and increased protections for communities of color to ensure their rights are protected. Additionally, the bill allows for more transparency in the new maps and a streamlined process for challenging gerrymandered maps in courts. The second provisional that this bill contains is very important because currently, the Supreme Court has made some of the largest decisions in the context of gerrymandering, but the process takes lots of time, and without clear provisions as to what a constitutional map is, the courts require tons of time to validate these maps. As a result, the parts of this bill oriented towards solving gerrymandering are very positive steps and clearly in the right direction.
With many maps redrawn from the 2020 Census facing legal challenges, new laws and cases will be implemented with each legal precedent. As of July 7th, 2023, 74 cases have been filed for congressional or legislating maps across 27 states for discriminatory or partisan gerrymanders. The already litigated cases had caused congressional maps to be redrawn in Alaska, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina. Additionally, corresponding state courts have ordered Congressional maps to be redrawn for Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina just before the 2024 general elections. With many of these maps initially being drawn by Republicans in power, the overturning could allow Democrats to flip 10 House seats that could secure their majority. Impending cases to watch out for include New York’s congressional maps that could flip up to six cores for Democrats. The case is set to be held this November. On the other hand, North Carolina’s highest court has allowed the state to draw partisan legislative maps that could boost their Republican odds. This case is still developing, with talks appealing to the Supreme Court.
One of the most important issues in the current democratic system is gerrymandering because it prevents certain groups of voters' voices from being heard. Additionally, these gerrymandering attempts have empirically been focused on people of color, which has led to underrepresentation. As a result, we need to look into the policies and the current political system that has surrounded gerrymandering cases. Currently, there are some policies that are in place to prevent this but require a long process through the courts to implement truly, so some future policies are necessary and have been theorized, but the key moment is for them to be passed.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.
- Little, Becky. 2021. “How Gerrymandering Began in the US.” HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/gerrymandering-origins-voting.
- “What We Know About Redistricting and Redistricting Reform: Where We Have Been: The History of Gerrymandering in America.” n.d. New America. Accessed January 16, 2024. https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/what-we-know-about-redistricting-and-redistricting-reform/where-we-have-been-the-history-of-gerrymandering-in-america/.
- Kirschenbaum, Julia, and Michael Li. 2021. “Gerrymandering Explained.” Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/gerrymandering-explained.
- “Voting Rights Act (1965) | National Archives.” 2022. National Archives |. https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/voting-rights-act.
- Miller, Lauren, Wendy R. Weiser, and Ashleigh Maciolek. 2023. “The Freedom to Vote Act.” Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/freedom-vote-act.
- Waldman, Michael. 2021. “Redistricting Litigation Roundup.” Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/redistricting-litigation-roundup-0.
- Ax, Joseph. 2023. “In win for Republicans, North Carolina court allows partisan gerrymandering.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/us/win-republicans-north-carolina-court-says-gerrymandering-is-legal-2023-04-28/.