Partisan Gerrymandering

Brendon Rivard | March 19, 2018
Image by Josh Graciano, CC-BY 2.0 License.

With the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s congressional districts, partisan gerrymandering has surged to the forefront of newspaper coverage. When most of us consider the partisan gerrymandering issue that faces the Supreme Court (whether or not they ultimately decide to act on the issue), we imagine Republicans or Democrats meticulously crafting lines to add or remove the couple of thousand voters that could determine the next election. It makes sense, intuitively, that the adversarial nature of elections leads to adversarial map-drawing. Indeed, most news articles on the subject treat partisan gerrymandering as such, with a focus on how to remove the partisan element from map-making with devices like independent commissions.

However—attributable to a combination of increased polarization and racial bloc voting—the mainstream media’s focus on the partisan element misses a critical component of the debate: partisan gerrymandering is functionally equivalent to racial gerrymandering in most, if not all, cases. In 2016, for instance, non-white voters coalesced to a significant degree with the Democratic Party (89% of African American voters, 66% of Latino American voters, and 65% of Asian American voters cast a ballot for the Democratic Party). Some outlets and academics have discussed the near-inseparably intertwined nature of racial and partisan gerrymandering.

The racial aspect of gerrymandering creates a significant gap between the media coverage of partisan gerrymandering as simple bare-knuckle politics and the actual legal considerations facing lawyers and lawmakers under the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. In particular, lawmakers must adhere to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires non-diminishment of majority-minority districts (or, in the Act’s terms, prevents dilution of such votes). The media largely has failed to discuss the legal implications of the tension these two burdens create. On one hand, congressional requirements state that map-makers must create maps that do not dilute the vote of minority voters. On the other hand, practical political realities dictate that partisan victories lead to partisan map-making and there are real definitional boundary issues for partisan protections (such as how one factors in independents, minor parties, etc).

An informed citizenry is critical to a functioning democracy. To foster such an atmosphere, mainstream media sources must do a better job of discussing the complexities and ramifications of issues. This is particularly true in regards to partisan gerrymandering, which serves as an intersection of partisanship and race. The districts that legislatures create must ensure adequate minority representation. While there is a component of redistricting that is strictly partisan, it is, as most things, not that simple.