Redistricting Will Be the Biggest Threat to America's Next Election Cycle

Whether Democrat or Republican, the problem is on both sides in 2018 and 2020.

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Jul 6 2017, 6:30pm

Image via WIkimedia Commons.

Jon Ossoff was supposed to be the next great hope of the political left. With an impressive academic background (including degrees from Georgetown and the London School of Economics), and armed with a platform perhaps best described as "progressive on women's issues and health care, moderate on jobs and security," the fresh-faced former political aide conjured images of a young Barack Obama--an ideal to candidate to put forward for Georgia's sixth congressional district up for grabs after President Trump named former congressman Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Paired with the president's poor performance ratings--and an even more abysmal numbers for the GOP-led Congress--the election looked like the perfect opportunity for the Democrats to set the narrative for the 2018 midterm elections. But he lost.

Georgia's sixth congressional district -- one of few remaining moderate House seats --still slightly favors the GOP, but it wasn't always that way. The district has gone red in all five of the last presidential elections, and has had a Republican Congressman since Newt Gingrich's 1978 win. Georgia's sixth congressional district was once poor, rural and Democrat-leaning, but was transformed into an educated, GOP-safe bet in just under half a century.

"I'll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get [Democratic Congressman from Georgia's 4th District] Hank Johnson's protégé to be my representative. And you didn't hear that," Georgia State Senator Fran Millar told his party last April. "They were not drawn for that purpose."

Despite an outpouring of millions of dollars in donations and campaign volunteers from around the country, there was one hurdle that was perhaps too high for Ossoff, or any Georgia Democrat, to overcome: gerrymandering. With the Supreme Court announcing last June that it would hear Wisconsin-based gerrymandering case Gill v. Whitford this fall, the issue is making its way to the national stage.

"If you are a gerrymanderer, you don't want your districts to be too safe."

In the simplest terms, gerrymandering is when the political party in power manipulates boundaries of districts to maximize their legislative representation. (In 37 states, state legislatures are in charge of creating districts based off of the most recent census data.)


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"People often think that gerrymandering is about creating super-safe districts," Michael Li, senior counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, told VICE Impact in an email interview. "But, in reality, if you are a gerrymanderer, you don't want your districts to be too safe - because then you aren't maximizing your seats. What you want to do, instead, is spread your voters out among districts so that you can win as many seats as possible."

In Maryland, for example, a lawsuit filed last May noted that the Democrat-controlled legislature redrew the state's sixth congressional district, transforming it from 47 percent Republican registered voters and 36 percent Democrat, to 33 percent and 44 percent, respectively. It's hardly a supermajority, but clearly a play to increase the odds that a Democrat would win the seat in the 2018 election.

Technology has made it easier than ever to ensure the results favorable to the party that draws the lines.

"Thanks to technology and 'big data,' we now know more than ever about voters and can engineer districts that produce an almost certain electoral result," Li said. "The most extreme gerrymanders of this decade, in fact, have proven remarkably durable in both pro-Democratic and pro-Republican electoral cycles." Li cited Pennsylvania, where Republicans held on to 13 of 18 congressional seats even in years where Democrats did very well statewide.

With gerrymandering so rampant, and partisan bias felt deeply across the country, how can fair and balanced districts emerge?

Unsurprisingly, many of the most notoriously gerrymandered states--such as Virginia and Wisconsin--not only pile voters (such as people of color) into the same districts: often, through strict voter ID laws, they attempt to keep them from getting to the polls in the first place.

"In states like North Carolina, many of these laws seem to be rooted in a survivalist ethos that places winning at all costs above all else," Li said, citing the court case that ruled that North Carolina had specifically targeted black voters with "almost surgical precision" when the state rolled out a number of restrictive new voter ID laws.

With gerrymandering so rampant, and partisan bias felt deeply across the country, how can fair and balanced districts emerge? One alternative, Li suggested, is having independent commissions create districts, instead of state legislatures comprised of representatives with skin in the game.

"California used to have high partisan bias when politicians were in charge of redistricting," Li said. "Then in 2008 and 2010, voters enacted reforms that created an independent redistricting commission that give independents as well as Republicans and Democrats a seat at the table. With that, the problem of high levels of partisan bias disappeared."

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Li noted the fact that Gill v. Whitford is slated to appear in front of the court as a good sign: "The court has shown a willingness to take a more practical and less formalistic approach in other recent redistricting cases, in contrast to earlier cases. There's reason to hope that also will be the case when it comes partisan gerrymandering."

But he wasn't completely optimistic, saying the next few years look like they will be "a redistricting free-for-all, with both parties already talking about spending hundreds of millions to try to control - and game - the process."

The first step in ending the intensely complicated problem of gerrymandering? Get out and vote. Register to vote, or learn how to help others register, through organizations such as Rock the Vote or Vote Latino.