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Stopping Gerrymandering Can’t Wait

A new redistricting cycle is about to start, and if Congress doesn’t act quickly, the unfair and undemocratic effects could last a decade.

August 10, 2021
The Washington Post

This piece origin­ally appeared in the Wash­ing­ton Post.

The recent wave of voter suppres­sion laws has rightly drawn much atten­tion. But another, even more perni­cious wave of anti-voter laws will begin shortly: the redraw­ing of congres­sional maps. Unless Congress acts quickly, Amer­ic­ans are on the verge of some of the most aggress­ive gerry­man­der­ing in the coun­try’s history. Inev­it­ably, communit­ies of color, which provided almost all of the coun­try’s growth over the past decade, will bear the brunt of this anti-demo­cratic line-draw­ing.

 As Demo­crats final­ize a new version of reform legis­la­tion to replace the For the People Act, it is essen­tial, as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) recog­nized in June, that the meas­ure include a provi­sion to “ban partisan gerry­man­der­ing,” draw­ing district lines that unfairly enhance the repres­ent­a­tion of the party in power.

Such a ban — along with beefed-up remed­ies for abuses and uniform stand­ards for draw­ing maps, includ­ing strengthened protec­tions for communit­ies of color — would amount to the most consequen­tial federal redis­trict­ing legis­la­tion in history. But unlike other parts of voting legis­la­tion that might not come into play until 2022 or later, redis­trict­ing reforms cannot be put off.

On Aug. 16, the Census Bureau releases map data to states. After that, states are expec­ted to rush to complete maps. Eight­een states, includ­ing Texas, Ohio and North Caro­lina, face tight fall dead­lines for complet­ing maps. Another 14 states, includ­ing Geor­gia and Tennessee, also could pass new maps by the end of the year or shortly there­after based on historic prac­tices. In a matter of weeks, the process will be over in most of the coun­try.

Why the new sense of urgency? Many Demo­crats were alarmed by reports that White House aides believe it is possible to “out-organ­ize” Repub­lican voter suppres­sion efforts. But here’s the real­ity: You cannot out-organ­ize a well-craf­ted gerry­mander. Once manip­u­lated maps are drawn, they will be almost impossible to over­come.

The evid­ence from the past decade makes that clear. In 2011, Repub­lic­ans in Pennsylvania passed a congres­sional map that divided communit­ies to engin­eer a GOP lock on 13 of the state’s 18 congres­sional districts. It worked. In 2012, Demo­crats won 51 percent of the statewide congres­sional vote but secured only five congres­sional seats. The Pennsylvania map was so durably gerry­mandered that even if Demo­crats won a histor­ic­ally high 56 percent of the congres­sional vote, they would capture only six seats. (By contrast in 2006, when Demo­crats won 56 percent of the vote under the prior map, they won 11 congres­sional districts.)

A simil­arly gerry­mandered map in Ohio has held Demo­crats to just four of the state’s 16 congres­sional districts all decade, while maps in North Caro­lina gave Repub­lic­ans a 10-to-3 advant­age for most of the decade. All told, the Bren­nan Center estim­ates that last decade’s extreme gerry­man­der­ing gave Repub­lic­ans an extra 15 to 17 seats in Congress. Wins in court were able to dial back some of this advant­age, but litig­a­tion consumed much of the decade. North Caro­lina did not receive a new, fairer map until the 2020 elec­tion.

What can we expect going forward? In the South, where most of the redis­trict­ing hot spots are located, gerry­manders histor­ic­ally have come at the expense of communit­ies of color. This cycle could be even worse.

Most people of color in the coun­try’s metro areas now live in the suburbs rather than in tradi­tional major­ity-minor­ity districts in inner cities. Here, a new type of minor­ity power has begun to emerge as multiracial coali­tions have come together around cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Hous­ton. But these districts are not protec­ted by voting rights laws as inter­preted by the Supreme Court and will likely be dismantled by partisan map-draw­ers in redis­trict­ing. The damage will last a decade.

Federal legis­la­tion would trans­form how congres­sional districts are drawn, step­ping in where the Supreme Court has stepped out, to restore fair­ness to the process and strengthen frayed legal protec­tions for communit­ies of color. It also would make it easier and faster for voters to chal­lenge polit­ic­ally or racially discrim­in­at­ory maps in court, and for the first time require mean­ing­ful trans­par­ency in a process that histor­ic­ally has taken place behind closed doors.

But the longer it takes to pass federal legis­la­tion, the harder it will be to fully imple­ment its reforms. For example, the trans­par­ency provi­sions of the bill would be impossible to imple­ment after the fact. That would allow lawmakers to hide maps from the public and then cram them through in a matter of hours, as happened in Pennsylvania in 2011.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that courts would not inter­vene to stop partisan redis­trict­ing, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. poin­ted the way to a solu­tion: “The Framers gave Congress the power to do some­thing about partisan gerry­man­der­ing.” Congress and the Biden White House need to make saving the redis­trict­ing cycle an urgent prior­ity. Every vote should count equally — and every day matters to ensure that happens.