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Perspective on Gerrymandering and How to Fix it

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

By Ryan Coker

Central Votes President

Campus Vote Project Democracy Fellow

Since the very passing of the fifteenth amendment in 1870, voting for newly freed slaves was no easy task. From grandfather clauses to outright violence, voting has since been destined to be an uphill battle for black citizens and other minorities communities at large. In our more modern society we have been able to make voting more accessible for all people, but there is still much to be done, especially for communities of color where the foundations of voting are far more vexing. According to the vast majority of data from scholars the voting disparities between white and nonwhite citizens is large and growing. This has posed a fundamental imbalance in the way our democracy functions, so why is this happening and what can we do to close this gap and remove these barriers.

Of course, there’s no easy answer— in fact, there are many, but I will point out one of the biggest issues, which is gerrymandering, which seems to be at the very heart of voter suppression overall. As previously stated, voting for African Americans has always been difficult. The question is how we can begin to remove these practices. Voting ought to be made easy, free and accessible for everyone in order to cultivate a healthy democracy. We all benefit from more people voting, not more one a certain race, gender, or party voting than the other and these practices do just this in such a way that voting disparities exist. Voting must be made fair and in order to do so the people deciding where and how we vote should be ordinary people, not politicians.

Throughout history, gerrymandering has shown to not only be based on party lines, but racial lines as well, in which numerous attempts of diluting the “voting potential” of minority groups have occurred. Gerrymandering still happens today and both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for doing it, which has caused many people to advocate for reform. This has compelled some states, like California, Washington, Arizona, and more recently Michigan, to create systems that would perform redistricting independently from state legislators and without bias. Despite these efforts, many people do not necessarily agree on the different ways to achieve a completely unbiased and independent redistricting system. Some of the most common opinions include creating an independent commission, which then asks the question of how the commission is chosen and who gets to be on it. Will it be chosen randomly, do legislators get to pick, or can citizens vote for members? Some interest groups make efforts to create court cases to solve redistricting through the judicial system. In hopes of creating a system almost entirely void of bias, people have proposed using a computer-based system that would draw district lines, but of course, who would then be chosen to create this system, or the various algorithms that generate the lines? Ultimately, there isn’t a clear solution to how redistricting can be made truly fair, however, there are pros and cons to these ideas and alternatives that should be considered.

Reformers have proposed using computers and algorithms to draw districts in order to ensure that districts are neat, compact, and without biased. According to CQ Researcher, “Big data could lessen partisanship if used correctly because mapmakers are using it to reduce the number of swing districts and to keep more districts safely in one party’s hands” (2018). A large advantage to using data and technology to create maps is that a machine can’t have a political affiliation. This would ultimately guarantee that lines are drawn without bias, backed with mathematical reasoning on creating certain districts. According to Nolan McCarty, a political scientist from Princeton University, “any procedure you come up with that looks apolitical has to have had a bunch of political decisions made in order to come up with that procedure” (2018). Even Justice Anthony Kennedy is skeptical of this approach, stating that using technology is “both a threat and a promise” (2018). In addition to this, technology isn’t always the most reliable thing. Our phones and computers glitch all the time and a super advanced, artificially intelligent machine that can determine districts isn’t exempt from that. It can still have problems. It also raises a security concern, like how susceptible it is to being hacked or being sabotaged. Redistricting is an important aspect of our political system and many are skeptical to put such an important thing in the hands of machines. A technological approach would be the most precise and efficient way, but it may not be the most reliable.

In most cases, states have taken it upon themselves to come up with their own alternatives for redistricting, involving a commission separate from state legislators. This kind of format helps to ensure that it isn’t politicians themselves who directly influence the makeup of states' maps. This aspect is a major benefit to reformers. However, this alternative can have flaws. We can observe potential issues when evaluating California’s redistricting commission. The commission is made up of 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 independents, who are selected by the California State Auditor from a large pool that gets narrowed down to 60 people. The list of 60 people is then given to the legislator to decide who gets put onto the commission. Although the partisan makeup of the commission is fairly equal on its face, it’s impossible to create a commission that purely unbiased. Legislators could try to choose very extreme members in order to sway the overall judgment of the commission in a certain direction. It may be difficult to find someone who is completely neutral because independents may still lean one way or the other. This creates the question of how far will the commission lean and in which direction? Legislators choosing who gets membership can still open the door for unwanted, partisan decisions to be made. For example, in a state like California, whose legislature is held by a large majority of Democrats, politicians could collectively make their decisions based on which applicants mirror a certain political standard the best.

In evaluating these ideas, the best alternative is forming an independent commission of randomly selected members, because it truly aims to separate the influence of politicians and it puts the power in the hands of voters. This commission shouldn’t be chosen by any government entity, like in California. Instead, members should be chosen randomly. This alternative is much like Michigan’s redistricting initiative. The Michigan commission is best because members are randomly selected, which guarantees that no agenda is set in choosing members. In the initiative is a proposal that applicants can’t have any significant political interest and they cannot be an elected partisan official, legislative staffer, or related to someone in either of these two categories. The Michigan commission strictly aims for average citizens, rather than a certain kind of person and it focuses more on voters rather than politicians. Despite the flaws that come with an independent commission, the pros outweigh the cons and it’s far better in ensuring a more representative government.

For decades, the laws in the U.S seemingly have failed to reflect those of a real democracy. In its most basic form, redistricting is an important part of what makes up our government and it is a true measure of voting potential among citizens. The Founders entrusted this task to state legislators, but competitiveness in politics has eroded the legitimacy of this system because lawmakers have abused their power, which has resulted in years of race-based and partisan gerrymandering. Due to this, districts are not being properly represented and people’s voting rights are being infringed on. Efforts to reform redistricting have seen success within the judicial system, but this change is not always guaranteed. A technological approach has been considered which is the closest solution to a more unbiased system, but it comes with a large risk factor. As Justice Kennedy stated, technology would be “both a promise and a threat.” The most effective way to reform redistricting is for states to implement change that is best for them and by aiming for reform that puts power in the hands of voters and not politicians and Michigan’s independent commission closely reflects this.

By Ryan Coker

Central Votes President

Campus Vote Project Democracy Fellow


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