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Some Good News on Gerrymandering

March 11, 2022 5:45 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

We provided an extensive update on Gerrymandering and Voter Suppression in the February ClassACT Newsletter through a video interview conducted by Rick Brotman '73 and Jacki Swearingen '73. Here are recent developments.

As of the last week in February, 42 states had adopted their districting plans for the 2022 House race, although more than a dozen plans are facing challenges in court. With the 2022 state primaries close at hand, politicians have been scurrying to redraw voting districts to take into account the 2020 census numbers. They are focusing on the creation of new districts in areas with a growing population and the elimination of districts in areas where the number of voters has been shrinking. This has led to much creative use of the new tools that enable precise gerrymandering, down to the precinct level. 

Not surprisingly, the overall trend has been that in states where the legislature carries out the redistricting (the case in most states), the gerrymandering has benefited the dominant political party. Since Republicans control more legislatures, you would expect that the net gains overall to be greater for the G.O.P.  than for Democrats. But in fact, the Democrats have been able to tilt things their way very effectively in the states where they call the shots, such as Illinois and New York. For their part, Republicans have used their redistricting power mostly to make existing Republican-controlled districts even more one-sided, to protect incumbents and keep those districts Republican-controlled well into the future, rather than trying to flip as many districts as possible in their favor right now.

In New York, an advisory commission whose members were split 50/50 between the two parties deadlocked and failed to propose a unified redistricting plan. Instead, each side presented its own plan, one drawn to the Democrats’ advantage and the other to the Republicans’. The legislature, which is Democratic-controlled, ignored the two plans and drew up its own, which shifted three seats toward Democrats. Furthermore, the legislature did this in a rush, refusing to hold any public hearings to get input on the proposed maps.

Pennsylvania is a 50-50 battleground state that, because of effective Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 census, has a decidedly Republican-leaning legislature. The legislature created a redistricting plan very favorable to Republicans and sent it to the governor for approval. When the governor, a Democrat, refused to approve the plan, the dispute went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court delegated the redistricting task to an independent expert from Stanford University. The expert created a much more equitable plan, which the state will use in the 2022 elections.

We anticipated in our ClassACT HR73 Gerrymandering Primer that a lot of gerrymandering would take place in 2022 because of faster, cheaper tools available and less time for scrutiny, given COVID-related delays in releasing the 2020 census data. What is remarkable, however, is that now so much gerrymandering takes place in the open, blatantly. In the past politicians tried to keep the proceedings hidden from public scrutiny, behind closed doors.

Each party seems proud of its prowess in gerrymandering and all but flaunts partisan map-drawing as a valuable tool for advancing its interests. Here is what is equally surprising: how much traction the analytics for detecting gerrymandering have been gaining. The Stanford expert who redrew the Pennsylvania voting districts proved to the court, based on his quantitative techniques and analysis of voter data, that his redistricting plan was fair and balanced.

Furthermore, the State Supreme Court of Ohio has used such analytics to throw out the extremely gerrymandered plans created by the Republican-dominated legislature. North Carolina’s Supreme Court also rejected a voting map because of racial bias, basing its ruling on the results of analytical techniques similar to those we discussed in the Primer.

There is another encouraging trend, despite the overall trend toward more abuse of gerrymandering tactics. The independent-commission model seems to be gaining some momentum. The model has produced fair maps in California since 2011. Colorado and Michigan implemented independent commissions last year, and they appear to be working well. Under this approach, which we favor, politicians do not appoint the members; the commissioners are balanced among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; and the commission, not the legislature, has the power to draw up the voting maps.

As we enter the primaries, and then the general elections, we will see what kind of effect these changes, both negative and positive, will have on voting results. Stay tuned.

 -Jim Harbison & Ryan O'Connell

ClassACT HR ‘73

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