|By Katherine Hamilton
Digital Content Writing Fellow, RepresentUs
You may have heard of gerrymandering before, but did you know that starting in September 2021, states will draw our voting districts for the next ten years? If politicians gerrymander the maps this year, they’ll be able to pick their voters and rig districts to entrench their own power for the rest of the decade.
In an exclusive with Axios, RepresentUs experts released a report showing that 35 states are at extreme or high risk of partisan gerrymandering. That’s 188 million Americans living under the threat of gerrymandered districts. Map-makers are gearing up to redraw districts based on the new census data right now, so time is running out to stop the threat.
Here’s the ultimate guide to gerrymandering in 2021. Read on to learn how politicians gerrymander, which states most urgently need reform, and how passing the For the People Act would end rigged election maps once and for all.
What is gerrymandering?
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Gerrymandering occurs when politicians draw election district maps to loop in or exclude certain voters, effectively erasing votes so the incumbent party or politician can stay in power regardless of what the majority of voters want. The most common method of gerrymandering includes “packing and cracking,” where a politician rigs district lines that pack together supportive voters and break up unsupportive voters.
Every ten years, state and federal district maps are redrawn based on updated Census data during what’s called a redistricting process. If self-interested politicians are in charge of that process, they can gerrymander these districts to keep their grip on power — no matter what the voters want.
Gerrymandering is one reason why less than 10% of House races are competitive.
Right now, 35 states are at high or extreme risk of gerrymandering. This means more than half of America's vote could be completely skewed by unfair redistricting. These extreme-risk states are both red and blue, small and large, and located all over the map. Gerrymandering doesn’t only benefit one side of the aisle; it screws everyone — except establishment politicians.
This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a power issue. To solve it, we need to return that power to the people — and it’s more urgent now than ever. Unfair redistricting now would rig elections until 2030. Is your state at risk? Find out here.
States have the power to make redistricting transparent and fair, but right now 70% of states lack sufficient gerrymandering restrictions. Read the full report here.
What puts a state at risk of gerrymandering?
Our policy experts examined the redistricting laws on the books in all 50 states, using five key threat criteria:
- Can politicians control how election maps are drawn? In many states, politicians who stand to benefit from gerrymandering are the ones in charge of drawing and approving voting maps. When states let incumbent officials oversee redistricting, they increase their risk of gerrymandering.
- Can election maps be drawn in secret? The public deserves to see how their own communities are being divvied up. The less transparency and citizen input, the easier it is for politicians to skew maps in their favor.
- Can election maps be rigged for partisan gain? Both Democrats and Republicans have been proven (very) guilty of gerrymandering. This is why checks and balances are essential to the redistricting process. Maps should require independent and cross-partisan approval. States are at a higher risk for gerrymandering if just one party is in charge of redistricting.
- Are the legal standards weak? Placing legal constraints and criteria on map-drawing can deter gerrymandering. States can require map-makers to keep geographical communities together, which lowers risk by preventing partisan abuse and racialized voter disenfranchisement.
- Are rigged election maps hard to challenge in court? If there are concerns about the maps, citizens should be able to challenge the district lines in court. A number of states make it almost impossible to challenge or change maps once they’ve been drawn.
Based on these criteria, 27 states are under extreme threat of gerrymandered maps, 8 are at high risk, 8 have low to moderate risk, and just 7 states have sufficient protection against rigged elections. Read on to find out where your state ranks and then text 413-225-5100 to join the fight to defend fair maps and receive text alerts about how to fight back against gerrymandering in 2021.
Extreme Threat of Rigged Maps: 27 States
Extreme-threat states give politicians control over an often-secretive, poorly-protected process. These states earn almost universally poor marks across process, partisan abuse, redistricting criteria, and public access categories, with map-drawing systems that can be steered toward political domination, incumbent protection, and partisan bias.
The extreme-threat states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
High Threat of Rigged Maps: 8 States
High-threat states are ripe for rigged maps, but may see minor protections in their current political landscape, basic transparency requirements, or simple legal standards for mapmakers.
With few exceptions, current politicians control the redistricting process.
The high-threat states: Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont.
Moderate Threat of Rigged Maps: 2 States
Moderate-threat states are a mixed bag, with some good protections against rigged maps, and some key weaknesses. In these states, there is some threat that one faction will be able to dominate the process. The existing safeguards largely depend on the current political landscape.
The moderate-threat states: Maine and Pennsylvania.
Lower Threat of Rigged Maps: 6 States
Lower-threat states tend to have open map-drawing systems that prevent the worst gerrymandering, but may allow politicians more of a say in the design. The systems in place in these states have consistent strengths and a varied set of weaknesses: some have looser legal standards, while others limit transparency or allow for some partisan decision-making.
The lower-threat states: Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia.
Minimal Threat of Rigged Maps: 7 States
Minimal-threat states have stronger protections against rigged maps and clear, structured systems that encourage citizens to get involved. The map-drawing laws these states have put in place allow for more independence and require maps to earn cross-partisan support, drastically reducing the likelihood of rigged maps.
The minimal-threat states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Washington.
Why the threat of gerrymandered maps matters right now
Gerrymandering is about to get a lot worse in the next decade if we don’t act right now. After this year, we won’t have another chance to redistrict fairly until 2030, so maps that are rigged now will disenfranchise voters for the next ten years.
The pandemic has only worsened the situation. The Covid crisis delayed the release of new census data, creating a tighter deadline for redistricting and giving legislators the chance to cut corners by limiting public hearings and contestation of new maps.
Thanks to improved technology about voters’ locations and preferences, along with a 2019 Supreme Court ruling that federal courts can't consider partisan gerrymandering cases, corrupt politicians have more power than ever to limit competition and silence voters.
The good news is, there’s a movement of everyday Americans already fighting to take that power out of the hands of corrupt politicians and salvage fair, democratic political representation.
How do we end gerrymandering? Pass the For the People Act
The For the People Act is the most immediate, direct, and comprehensive solution – and it's already made it to the Senate. 25% of the nation’s congressional districts have a low risk of gerrymandering. If passed, the Act would outlaw congressional gerrymandering nationwide, making it the most powerful, efficient way to defend against this anti-democratic assault.
- First, the For the People Act makes the redistricting process transparent and participatory. In many states, corrupt, self-serving politicians have been able to take advantage of redistricting by excluding voters from the process. The For the People Act requires the map-drawing process to be accessible to the public, and mandates public hearings before maps can be approved.
- It also holds those in power accountable. The people who draw district lines should have the voters’ best interest in mind, and not be incentivized to cement their party’s advantage. The Act disqualifies sitting politicians from controlling the redistricting process. It also requires empowering an independent group of commissioners to redraw and approve the new maps, including people from all ends of the political spectrum.
- Most importantly, it creates a national standard for redistricting. Despite the growing movement against gerrymandering, more than 70% of states are at an extreme or high risk of partisan gerrymandering. A federal law is the best way to address such a widespread threat to our democracy.
Anti-gerrymandering is just the tip of the For the People Act’s anti-corruption iceberg: the bill will also stop billionaires from controlling our elections, secure our voting systems, end dark money, and so much more. Read about the vital reforms in the Act and then check out what you can do to make sure it passes.
We’re already on our way to ending gerrymandering
We know this kind of policy works. The anti-corruption movement passed a record-high number of similar state-level gerrymandering reforms across the country in 2018. These laws improved representation and opened elections up to greater political competition, allowing voters a wider array of options so they’re not stuck voting for the lesser of two evils.
But gerrymandering is a deeply-rooted, systemic problem that requires an equally systemic solution. As our democracy faces attacks on our Capitol, over 360 voter suppression bills, and a decade of voter disenfranchisement, the For the People Act offers a pathway back to political representation.
Join the movement to end corruption and pass the For the People Act.