While Democrats and Republicans battle over voting rights, election integrity, and rules regarding mail ballots, relatively few in Washington have turned up the heat on gerrymandering, a uniquely American problem that winds up disenfranchising tens of millions of American voters.
Armed with the new Census data released last week, political groups across the country have started the once-in-a-decade process of re-drawing congressional and state legislative maps. That also – in most states – includes politicians looking for creative ways to draw the lines to give their party a leg-up on reapportionment of seats.
That tactic, known as gerrymandering, doesn’t just change the results of elections (59 out of 435 congressional seats, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress), but it also makes a lot of races less competitive.
According to the Cook Political Report, only 72 out of 435 congressional races were competitive in 2020, meaning votes in the general elections didn’t matter as much as votes in a primary in approximately 83% of races nationwide. That means – in most states – independents and voters in the minority party don’t get a say in their congressional representation.
Disenfranchising Republican and Democratic voters alike
Even if you live in a district where your political party has an electoral advantage, your congressional vote still may not count for much. Because incumbents are able to raise so much campaign cash, they seldom face challengers from their own party, reducing the elections to mere formalities.
That’s creating more extreme candidates.
“It’s much more difficult to have competitive elections that have more responsible and more moderate members when you have these locked-in districts for an entire decade,” said Damon Effingham, Director of Federal Reform for good-government group RepresentUs.
By manipulating so many district lines to make races less competitive, Effingham says gerrymandering has effectively taken away the voice of tens of millions of American voters. And technology is making it worse.
“Two-hundred years ago, Elbridge Gerry, whom gerrymandering is named after, didn't have the microscopic data that we have now and the software that allows [politicians] to weaponize that,” Effingham said. “I think it is a corruption of our political processes and a corruption of what I believe most Americans feel is our ideal of a representative government.”
While Republicans stand to gain more than Democrats in 2022 from gerrymandering – they control more of the state legislatures that draw each state’s legislative lines – voters from both parties suffer when the majority is allowed to draw the minority out of elections.
Gerrymandering helped Democrats win 10 out of New Jersey’s 12 congressional seats in 2020, even though 41% of the state voted for former President Trump last November. It also helped Republicans win 12 out of Ohio’s 16 congressional seats in 2020, even though 45% of the state voted for President Biden.
”When members are not beholden to the American electorate, they're no longer feel the need to work on behalf of the American electorate,” Effingham said. “Instead, they can just stick to their ideological base and face no repercussions from intransigence.”
A blueprint to end gerrymandering
Democrats have included a ban on gerrymandered congressional districts in their massive elections overhaul bill, the “For the People Act.” But Republicans have pushed back hard against the bill, calling some of its measures too radical, while some Senate Democrats have also expressed reservations about the package.
However, gerrymandering and partisan-mapmaking are fairly unpopular among voters of all parties, and a stand-alone bill to ban gerrymandering – before the districts are locked in for the next 10 years – might still be popular in 2021.
Several states have ended gerrymandering on their own by handing the map-making responsibilities over from the legislature to independent redistricting commissions. Studies have shown districts drawn by these commissions tend to be more fair and more competitive.
But in a landscape where politicians feel the need to capture every slight political advantage possible, legislative majorities have little incentive to give up a redistricting advantage when so many other states are still leaning into theirs.
Finally, open primaries – where voters of any party can vote – can greatly reduce the impacts of gerrymandering, even in a poorly-drawn district.
Time is, however, running out before redistricting decisions get finalized.
“If we don't institute prohibitions on political gerrymandering now, we are stuck with these to the terrible politics…and these terrible unresponsive lines for at least a decade,” Effingham said.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.