Although American democracy is based on equal representation, political parties vying for control continue their attempts to tilt the power dynamic. One of the most powerful ways this happens is through gerrymandering: a deliberate manipulation of district lines to give one party an advantage over the other.
Democracy reform issues like this one are taking center stage in a political landscape that many perceive as corrupt. Other democracies around the world have much stricter regulations on the redistricting process than the U.S., and for many reasons. Like big money in politics, gerrymandering provides opportunities for corruption as political insiders gain disproportionate power over average citizens when it comes to who gets elected.
Read on to learn more about the problem of gerrymandering and how the 28th Amendment serves as a solution.
How does gerrymandering work?
Gerrymandering generally occurs once every 10 years, when political districts are redrawn by state legislators—generally, elected officials with the party in power—using new Census data on state populations and demographics. Rather than drawing logical lines along geographic boundaries or neighborhoods of a city, Democrats and Republicans have used this process to skew vote counts in a way that helps them win elections. It comes down to two principal tactics called “packing” and “cracking.”
“Packed” districts are drawn in a way that concentrates the opposing party’s voters, which reduces their power in other districts. This allows the governing party to win in the other “cracked” districts, where the opposition’s support is diluted.
Why does gerrymandering matter?
Gerrymandering has impacted American government for centuries. The term dates back to 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry approved a redistricting plan designed to keep the Republicans in power and suppress the Federalists’ chances of winning office. By attempting to apportion voters into oddly shaped “packed” and “cracked” districts, the new map included one that many thought looked like a salamander. Since the Boston Gazette published a cartoon photo of the map in its article, “The Gerry-Mander: a New Species of Monster,” this phrase has been widely used as a nickname for the process.
Oddly shaped districts like the original gerrymander demonstrate the lengths that state legislators will take to exclude voters and create an advantage for their party. Now that gerrymandering has spread to divide voters nationwide, districts shaped like ducks and earmuffs and even blood splatters continue to serve partisan interests—and dilute the actual preferences of voters.
But state legislators aren’t the only ones influencing district lines: The influx of money into American politics allow for partisan special interests to play a role in the redistricting process. Purportedly independent districting nonprofits are often funded by corporations and unions, which have clear political interests related to their profits, regulations and protections. Their hand in determining the results of elections through gerrymandering leaves open the possibility for special favors or back-door deals.
Like unregulated money in our political system, gerrymandering undermines the democratic process. In its attempt to sway elections and political agendas, gerrymandering diminishes the power of constituents’ votes and allows incumbents to retain an unfair advantage in subsequent elections, making it more difficult for challengers to gain power.
Widespread redistricting in recent decades has led to an unprecedented drop in the number of competitive congressional elections. FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization, reports that “in 2010, 70 of 435 U.S. House districts had a competitive partisan balance … but after redistricting in 2011, the number of competitive districts declined to only 53. That number dropped again to 47 seats (only 11% of all seats) after the 2012 election due to shifts in voting behavior.”
Governing parties are incentivized to ensure “safe” elections through redistricting, but by preventing competitive elections they hamper voters’ freedom to vote out incumbents who haven’t followed through on their promises or fail to represent their constituents’ views. Holding elected officials accountable by free and fair elections is crucial to maintaining a functional democracy, as unchecked incumbents foster an environment ripe for corruption and concentrations of power.
Powerful political forces like gerrymandering and big money in politics are compromising the people power at the core of democracy. While gerrymandering serves as a direct method of voter suppression, it also indirectly influences voters with the idea that their vote doesn’t actually count. Oftentimes, it doesn’t.
The partisan asymmetry between voter attitudes and congressional representation is unprecedented, and only contributes to the growing trend of political polarization. This causes meaningful action on issues affecting all Americans to be stymied by gridlock. Gerrymandering and the unbridled flow of money into politics promote corruption, empowering politicians on both sides of the aisle to pursue divergent agendas at the wishes of party leaders or big donors rather than to compromise and represent the ideological diversity of their voters.
What’s the solution?
It may seem impossible to move the needle on such systemic, entrenched problems. Although gerrymandering and big money in politics may be difficult to overcome, this is precisely when Americans have historically turned to fundamental reform via the amendment process. Constitutional amendments have historically been catalysts to inciting lasting reform, like providing safeguards for equal representation that’s key to protecting citizens’ votes against partisan manipulation.
Gaining input from Americans around which democracy reforms are most important to them, and which should be included in the 28th Amendment, is a goal of American Promise. Our Writing the 28th program was designed to drive and develop this process. Click here to take the poll and share your opinions on what the amendment should do or say.
Citizen leaders with American Promise and other democracy reform groups know we must counter gerrymandering and similar practices by establishing rules to prevent elected officials from drawing unfair maps. Improvements in government transparency would, in turn, contribute to increased voter participation. Voters are effectively mobilized by belief and trust in the system, especially when their attitudes — not those of an elite donor class — determine policy. And by ensuring fair representation, the movement for the 28th Amendment and political equality seeks to benefit all Americans, not just political parties and special interests.