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Time Is Running Out to Stop Gerrymandering

Once new voting maps are drawn, they are difficult to change.

August 3, 2021

August 16 is a big day for demo­cracy. But it might not be a good day for demo­cracy. That’s when the Census Bureau releases the data that states will use in the redis­trict­ing process. The maps they draw will be used for the next 10 years. And in many states, what that means is the gerry­man­der­ing barbe­cue is about to begin. The unchecked partisan and racial gerry­man­der­ing that we expect to see won’t just tilt for one party — it will also serve to squelch the voices of people of color. 

As my colleague Michael Li explains in the Wash­ing­ton Post, federal legis­la­tion is urgently needed to stop the map grab and protect the integ­rity of the redis­trict­ing process. Based on current require­ments and past prac­tices, 32 states are likely to have new maps in place by early next year, more than half of them by this fall.

Gerry­man­der­ing has been around since the found­ing, when Patrick Henry tried to draw Virgini­a’s very first congres­sional map to prevent James Madison from winning a seat. Both parties do it when they can. And in the 21st century, with the help of computer algorithms combined with commer­cially avail­able consumer data, it oper­ates on a far vaster scale.

For example, Pennsylvani­a’s 2010 redis­trict­ing ensured a Repub­lican grip on 13 of the state’s 18 congres­sional districts, despite elec­tions where Demo­crats got more votes for Congress statewide. A Bren­nan Center analysis estim­ated that the last round of gerry­man­der­ing landed the GOP an addi­tional 15 to 17 House seats in all. And partisan gerry­man­der­ing dispro­por­tion­ately affects communit­ies of color, espe­cially in the South. Because of resid­en­tial segreg­a­tion, it’s easy to either combine or split apart those communit­ies for polit­ical effect.

We have also seen disturb­ing redis­trict­ing propos­als from conser­vat­ive extrem­ists who want to end the long-stand­ing prac­tice of count­ing every person when creat­ing state and local legis­lat­ive districts. Instead, they would exclude chil­dren and noncit­izens. Our new report projects the consequences of count­ing only adult citizens for state-level polit­ical districts in Geor­gia, Missouri, and Texas, three demo­graph­ic­ally differ­ent states where this appor­tion­ment method could take hold.

The results: Latino, Asian, and Black communit­ies would bear the brunt of repres­ent­a­tional losses, as urban and suburban areas that tend to be younger and more diverse are deprived of their fair share of polit­ical power and public resources.

On the federal level, the Supreme Court abdic­ated the judi­ciary’s respons­ib­il­ity for ensur­ing fair maps in a wrong­headed 2019 decision. But Chief Justice John Roberts prac­tic­ally sent Congress an engraved invit­a­tion to address the prob­lem, writ­ing, “The Framers gave Congress the power to do some­thing about partisan gerry­man­der­ing.” He even cited the For the People Act as an example. 

Members must now heed that (perhaps unin­ten­tional) call and pass legis­la­tion to ban this anti­demo­cratic prac­tice. They should also make it easier to chal­lenge discrim­in­at­ory maps in court and require mean­ing­ful trans­par­ency.

And it has to happen imme­di­ately. The longer it takes to pass federal legis­la­tion, the harder it will be to fully imple­ment, since once maps are drawn they are diffi­cult to change. The clock is tick­ing.