In 1812, as was their duty according to the United States Constitution following each national census, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed a bill that redrew the boundary lines for state senate electoral districts. Democratic-Republicans held a majority, and they took a very partisan approach to drawing the lines. In short, they tried to make sure their party held a majority in as many districts as possible, even if that meant drawing lines that created unusual and even non-sensical district boundaries.
Their most outlandish creation was South Essex, a district that ran all the way around the western fringes of Boston. Critics who looked at a map of Boston thought the new district map resembled a salamander, and when Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard “G”) signed the bill into law they used that term and his name to coin a new word — gerrymander — to describe what they saw as an undemocratic attempt to retain power. The term, and the process, have been with us ever since.
In 2021, however, we are witnesses to gerrymandering driven on a scale never seen in American political history. Modern analytics, social media, and astonishingly high levels of data collection allow legislatures and their party planners to know exactly where we live, whether we vote, how we vote, and how likely we are to support given issues based on our income, race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, and address. That level of micro-data allows them to draw lines that snake through neighborhoods and cities with no regard for logic other than to accumulate voters for the party in power. The process is called “cracking and packing,” a reference to the idea that one either cracks open districts dominated by the opposing party to dilute their voters across multiple districts, or packs them into smaller districts to minimize the number they can reasonably expect to win.
In America, given our rural/urban political divide, cracking and packing usually means taking slices of urban populations (which lean Democratic) and including large swaths of rural populations (which lean Republican) in a manner that gives an advantage to the party in power. While both parties have been guilty of cracking and packing in recent years, the mere fact that Republicans have full control of the legislative branch in 30 states means they are in a dominant position to retain and enlarge their political power between now and the next census in 2030.
And they’re using that power without shame or even the pretense of promoting fairness. In Utah, Republicans have broken Salt Lake County — which includes 40 percent of the population of the entire state and which President Joe Biden carried in 2020 — into multiple districts so that Democrats are outnumbered in each.
In Oklahoma, draft redistricting maps have been proposed that would likely allow for only 8 of 101 state House districts to be competitive, while no state Senate or Congressional seats are likely to be competitive at all. Republicans even broke up the old 5th Congressional District, which Democrat Kendra Horn won in 2018, into pieces that connect Oklahoma City with large swaths of rural communities that have nothing in common with the metro but will vote reliably Republican.
The same pattern holds in New Hampshire, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Kansas, Florida, and other states. Republicans in Arkansas have divided Little Rock to dilute the African American population across multiple districts. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, thought the plan so corrupt he refused to sign it, allowing it to become law without his signature. In Texas, 95 percent of the population growth over the last decade has been among people of color, but the legislature made certain that whites are in a majority in every single state and congressional district. Nationally, Republicans have the power to draw the lines in 187 districts while the Democrats can draw only 75.
Some pundits argue that this is just old school politics, that parties in power have always redrawn district lines to their advantage, and there is some truth to that. Democrats have done it in California and Oregon and may gain some seats in New York and Maryland, for example. But the scale of Republican efforts is staggering, and is fueled Rucho v. Common Cause, a monumental 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision which held the federal courts have no role to play in policing partisan gerrymandering. That decision overturned decades of federal case law and means states can largely do what they like about election districts even if they choose to be blatantly unfair or even racist.
And all of this is a problem. There’s a reason the United States is virtually alone in allowing partisan politicians to draw district lines. Politicians cannot be trusted to do this sort of thing in an unbiased manner, and when they shamelessly rig the system to remain in power rather than working to give all voters and candidates a fair chance to win, they are effectively promoting a system in which they get to pick their voters rather than the other way around.
This makes extreme politics more likely because elected candidates don’t have to worry about appealing to anyone but their base, leaving moderates with no one to represent them at all. And in a country where the states send electoral voters to finalize the election of presidents, the process leaves us vulnerable to a scenario in which a state legislature might ignore the will of their state voters and send electors to Washington, D.C., to vote for the candidate they like instead. That would provoke a Constitutional crisis that none of us want, and which should be avoided at all costs.
In Utah, Gov. Spencer J. Cox responded to these and other criticisms of his state redistricting plan by flippantly telling voters that if they care about fair maps, they should vote for different candidates next time.
But what if next time no one cares at all?
Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.