Why Democrats’ Cries of Gerrymandering Are False

Over the past decade or so, conservatives have been able to take comfort in the fact that more and more of state legislatures and governors are Republicans than Democrats (currently, there are 33 states where Republicans hold majorities in both state legislative chambers). In the federal House of Representatives and the Senate, the situation has been repeated, as Republicans currently hold a majority in both of these chambers as well.

And finally, after eight years of a divisive and sometimes torturous administration, the presidency has been won by a Republican instead of a Democrat. Although Republicans would like to think that their policies and platforms are to thank for all of these victories, it wouldn’t be entirely correct to say this is the case. That’s because what’s often helped Republicans at the ballot box is how states are districted according to their population.

Battles over districting are matters of extreme political contention that go back centuries and even pre-date the United States. In 1788, when future President James Madison campaigned for a Congressional seat in Virginia, his opponents, including Founding Father and patriot Patrick Henry, had the state’s district borders drawn in such a way as to disadvantage Madison on Election Day. Madison ended up winning anyway, but the technique of altering district borders to favor certain political parties became part and parcel of American politics.

In 1812, delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and signer of the Declaration of Independence Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry created a bizarre district whose borders around Boston resembled the outline of a salamander. A Boston newspaper drew a caricature of it, adding fangs, claws and a tail to the borders and named it the “Gerry-mander.” Ever since then, this name has been attached to politically-motivated iterations of this process.

In more modern times (especially recently), it’s been the Democrats who have accused Republicans of gerrymandering in the latter’s favor so that elections can be won by conservative majorities that are formed in many cases by where district borders happen to be placed. For the last year or so, gerrymandering has been an especially hot topic in Washington — even former President Obama has committed himself to helping Democrats fight Republicans on this issue specifically.

Now, a new case before the Supreme Court could potentially upset the Republicans’ apple cart when it comes to alleged gerrymandering if the Court’s justices side with the part of the Left.

Currently, Democrats are claiming that in Wisconsin, their voters are packed into too few districts, meaning that even if they win in those areas, the total number of districts in the state as a whole leans Republican. The Democrats say this isn’t fair because Democratic votes are being “wasted” in a low quantity of districts where Democratic voters are highly concentrated.

But another way to look at it is that most of the Democrats in the state (and many other states) live in cities and dense urban areas, while suburban and rural regions tend to be dominated by conservatives. Democrats are now hoping the Supreme Court will force the U.S. Commerce Department — the government agency that runs the Census Bureau, which determines how states draw electoral maps — to change how the districting process works.

Presently, if redistricting isn’t done often enough, population shifts — either growth spurts or flight out of particular regions — can favor one party over another. At the current moment, in 13 states, there are bipartisan or independent commissions that redraw district borders after each major federal census, which happens every 10 years.

But some states are more favorable to districting changes than others. For instance, in New York, a new state Constitutional amendment established a redistricting commission, but it still allows the state assembly (which leans heavily Democratic) to overrule any changes the commission recommends. Whereas in Iowa, any considerations of partisan affiliations are disallowed when district borders are drawn up.

In Wisconsin, essentially what Democrats want to do is illegitimately give urban voters more clout when it comes to drawing district borders. The model of Elbridge Gerry’s “salamander-shaped” district comes readily to mind. In 2011, the District Court of Western Wisconsin ruled that the state’s redistricting plan wasn’t legal according to the state’s Constitution. The state is appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court after Republicans happened to win 60 percent of the state’s assembly seats despite their party only receiving 49 percent of all votes statewide in 2012.

Yet in this case, Republicans may still hold the upper hand. That’s because, in past instances, the Supreme Court has declined to get involved in gerrymandering cases that are based purely on politics (as opposed to matters of race, national origin, religion, sex, age etc.). As now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2004 ruling, “political gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable” — meaning that political gerrymandering matters that must be decided at a local level, not through the federal courts. In the Wisconsin case, it may well turn out that the Court upholds this line of thinking, forcing Democrats to do the actual hard work of trying to persuade voters to agree with their political point-of-view.

Perhaps that’s what the Democrats are so afraid of, as apparently, their agenda and platform don’t necessarily appeal to voters that aren’t living on top of one another in cities or who aren’t used to a lower quality of life as is commonly found in denser urban areas. For now, the Court has refused to allow Wisconsin to redraw its district maps prior to the 2018 midterm elections; a final decision on the case likely won’t come until later next year.

Meanwhile, in Maryland and North Carolina, further gerrymandering cases are pending, so the Supreme Court decision could have a larger-than-expected impact when it’s finally made (likely after the midterm elections). It’s possible that the Supreme Court could consolidate all of these cases into one case, but it’s too early to say if this will definitely happen. Some legal experts are of the opinion that no matter what the outcome, nothing will change as far as redistricting on a national basis until after the elections of 2020.