September 7, 2021
By: Jillian Baker
Gerrymandering is bad news for democracy and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Mapmaking technology and election redistricting software are advancing at great speed. Equipped with this new technology, politicians and mapmakers now have the ability to create partisan election districts that all but guarantee that they win every time. With the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its 2020 Census redistricting data earlier this month, states and politicians have the green light to begin the process of redrawing electoral districts.
The time is now to prevent politicians and mapmakers from using this new data and technology to create even more gerrymandered districts. The good news? We can stop them.
What is gerrymandering and why does it matter anyway?
Gerrymandering is the process whereby district lines are redrawn to provide increased advantages to a person, party, or group over another. In other words, it allows politicians to choose their voters instead of their voters choosing them.
Gerrymandering ensures that the same incumbents from the same party stay in office for years. There is very little opportunity for other candidates from other parties to win elections in gerrymandered areas.
90 percent of voters oppose gerrymandering but most states have little to no limits on politicians drawing the district maps that they want. Our 2021 Gerrymandering Threat Index illustrates that 35 states — 70% of all states — are at high or extreme risk of allowing politicians to gerrymander their election districts, allowing their constituents to have little to no say in who represents them.
Serious threat incoming: mapping technology
Gerrymandering has been a problem in the United States since 1812, when Governor Gerry of Massachusetts drew a district voting map that looked like a salamander. But the threat posed by gerrymandering to our democracy has only grown over time. Why? Mapmaking technology. Computers have helped partisan politicians get even more precise data, parse it quickly, and draw maps that can carve up a neighborhood for partisan gain.
This makes creating partisan districts child's play. Districts favoring one political party can be made with a few clicks of a mouse even while still meeting neutral district criteria, such as keeping districts compact and following guidance in the Voting Rights Act.
One such example of technology’s role in extreme gerrymandering can be seen with Maptitude, a redistricting software program. Maptitude was used in the 2010 Project Redmap GOP effort to successfully increase their control of state legislatures throughout the country by, you guessed it, creating partisan election districts that benefited them.
While the company is doing everything it can to make it more difficult for mapmakers to use its technology to gerrymander districts, it is clear that politicians (in both parties) will utilize any technology they can to build their power.
What makes matters worse is that there are no federal restrictions to prevent these measures from taking place. In the 2019 ruling Rucho v. Common Cause, the Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering is a political question, not a judicial one and thus outside the scope of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. So there are currently no federal safeguards in place preventing politicians from choosing which voters have the opportunity to for them and which don’t.
The good news: we have the power to fix it
Combine this efficient gerrymandering process with the increased opportunity to do so, and we’ve got ourselves a problem.
Here is the good news — this same advanced technology provides a unique opportunity to stop gerrymandering in its tracks. By using the mapping technology to identify neutral district maps and comparing these neutral maps to partisan ones, partisan maps can be identified and fought against.
Take for example Jowei Chen’s impact on fighting gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. In 2017, Chen from the University of Michigan used an algorithm to draw 1,000 non-partisan theoretical maps for all Pennsylvania congressional districts. He then compared his sample maps to the actual Pennsylvania district map enacted in 2011 and found that the actual map was incredibly partisan and unfair. His analysis was used by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to strike down the unfair maps in 2018.
But what can we do about gerrymandering now?
We can do the same as Chen to fight against these increasing gerrymandering threats. That’s why RepresentUs has partnered with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to release the Redistricting Report Card. The report card evaluates all proposed maps on how gerrymandered each area is. Equipped with this knowledge, RepresentUs will spread the word and fight back against the creation of unfair election districts, build a powerful grassroots Democracy Defense Team, and pressure state legislatures to draw fair maps.
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