Since the 2016 election, many people – especially those who were disappointed by the outcome – have turned to blame gerrymandering as one of the causes for the failure of democracy. But is gerrymandering truly to blame for America’s evils? Is gerrymandering truly attacking democracy? And if not, can gerrymandering actually be good for democracy?
In the U.S, the political system is set up such that there are three governmental bodies that maintain a balance of power to prevent one from taking over the others. These three bodies are the executive (the President and 5 million workers), the legislative (the House of Representatives and the Senate), the judicial (the Supreme Court and lower courts). Each state in the U.S is divided into districts. From each district, a member of the legislative branch is elected.
The laws vary from state to state, however the legislative branch is generally responsible for dividing up the state into districts. Since Republicans are the majority party, during the last redistricting, they were in charge. The word “gerrymandering” is often thrown around without people actually knowing its true definition. Gerrymandering ensues if one political party intentionally forms districts to benefit their political agenda and help them win a majority. (Prokop, 2018) Typically, an indication of gerrymandering is the shape of the district. This is very much exemplified by districts 4 and 12 in North Carolina as their winding and snake-like shapes regroup major urban areas that are mostly democratic. As such, in North Carolina, there are only three democratic districts and the remaining ten are predominantly republican. (Prokop, 2018)
Gerrymandering has made it easier for Republicans to hold power in the House. However, many other unrelated issues are often attributed to gerrymandering. Many, like former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, claim that gerrymandering is the sole cause for the reduction of competition in the U.S elections. (Enten, 2018) Lack of competition in this context means that a state that is of a certain party is much more likely to remain under that party. An indication of lack of competition is how tight the race is. If a democratic candidate wins by a very large margin, it means that there is no competition. This is the phenomenon that is occuring more frequently in the U.S today. Republican states remain republican and democratic states remain democratic.
It may be true that elections are not as competitive as they used to be, but it is not true that gerrymandering is the cause of it. According to the Cook Political Report, “redistricting is only responsible for a small portion of this swing seat – a state in the U.S that is deemed just as likely to become Democrat as it is to become Republican and therefore plays a key role in the outcome of an election -discrimination” (Wasserman and Flinn, 2017). Instead, lack of competition came about because voters tend to live closer to like-minded people. Since 1997, 83% of the decline in competition has resulted from natural geographical sorting of the electorate.
A journal article by Wendy K. Tam Cho, James G. Gimpel and Iris S. Hui suggests that “politics matters for residential choices, both directly and indirectly”. Indeed, migration tends to occur largely because of economic motivations such as job opportunities. An example of this is college students. It is popularly accepted that after going to college, one is more likely to lean liberal. Additionally, going to college leads to higher paying job opportunities generally found in cities. As such, more like-minded people may move to where jobs present themselves. Likewise, if people from the suburbs are more conservative and they do not go to college, they will tend to stay in suburban areas and continue being conservative. Therefore, districts become less competitive because voters naturally geographically sort themselves.
But why is competition in districts so important? First of all, a reduction of competition means that there is less incentive to compromise. If it is too easy for a party to obtain votes, there is no need to try to find common ground and to be moderate. The district therefore runs the risk of becoming extreme. Furthermore, if one is a minority in their district but does not feel represented because of lack of competition, they are more inclined to lose faith in the political system and by extension the democracy. According to the communications marketing firm Edelman, only a third of Americans now trust their government “to do what is right”. If people do not trust their government to do what is right, the fundamentals of democracy are threatened and the risk that another form of government such as an authoritarian one comes to power is more likely. Therefore maintaining competition in districts is not only important for moderation but also for democracy.
Although gerrymandering is not the most important cause of lack of competitiveness in the US, it seems to take the blame for it. If the mindset that gerrymandering impacts competition to such a large extent cannot be changed, perhaps seeing that gerrymandering can be used to maximize competitiveness is a good solution. Indeed, as shown below, these graphs show that gerrymandering can be used to make districts more competitive. Therefore, if competition is key for trust in the democracy and can be achieved through gerrymandering, perhaps it can even be said that gerrymandering is good for democracy.