Gerrymandering in the United States



By Jim Sullivan

There is no such thing as a perfect political system, and the United States is no exception to that rule.  As a matter of fact, both the United States and India are currently widely considered to be dysfunctional democracies.

We need not look far for evidence of political dysfunction in the U.S. today: Extreme political polarization in Congress, the Supreme Court and the media, ineffective politicians, increasing inequality,  stagnant wages, an under-resourced military, and I could go on.

One dysfunction which has been with us since the founding of our Republic is gerrymandering, or the practice of redrawing boundaries of electoral districts to increase or decrease the political power of selected groups.  Two examples are political party (partisan) gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering.  SCOTUS (the Supreme Court of the United States) has dealt with racial but not political gerrymandering.

Reshaping of electoral districts takes place at the state level every ten years, right after the decennial census.  This redistricting process is controlled in most states by the governor and state legislators.  If one party controls a state’s political system, i.e., the governor’s office, the Senate and House of that state, the party in power can redraw electoral district boundaries to strengthen or weaken its own party, thus putting them at great advantage over their opponents in local and national elections until the next decennial census takes place.

Both Democrats and Republicans do gerrymandering.  At the moment, Republicans have the advantage over Democrats in gerrymandering, due primarily to a GOP strategy to win gubernatorial and legislative elections at the state level, thus controlling the redistricting process after the 2010 census in their favor.  The next census, and the next redrawing of political districts, will take place in 2020.

Gerrymandering leads to the disproportionate winning of local and national elections for the political party that has managed to redraw a state’s electoral districts to give it power over its opponents.  Gerrymandering can easily lead to winning an election even when the popular vote in that election has gone against the election winner.

Although occasionally challenged in court, partisan gerrymandering has been legal for a very long time, as it has usually been considered a political activity.  Two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases (Gill v. Whitford, out of Wisconsin and Benisek v. Lamone, out of Maryland), both decided in June 2018, illustrate how difficult it is to resolve the issue of political gerrymandering.  The first case, Gill v. Whitford was sent back to a lower court; the second case, Benisek v. Lamone, was decided without reference to the merits of gerrymandering.

While SCOTUS has set guidelines dealing with racial gerrymandering, it has not set guidelines on political (partisan) gerrymandering.  To be sure, there will be further U.S. Supreme Court cases on the legality of political gerrymandering.  Hopefully the Court’s docket will contain cases dealing with this difficult political and legal topic in the Court’s next term, beginning in October 2018.

Jim Sullivan is a Citizen Journalist and retired  businessman with graduate degrees in political science and business.  He lives in Ventura with his wife Juliette and two family cats.

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