When federal judge Nelva Gonzales struck down Texas’ discriminatory voter-identification law on Monday, voting rights advocates applauded the ruling as if the minorities barred from casting ballots had won the Super Bowl.
Amy Rudd, the attorney who represented the NAACP Texas State Conference and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said, “We hope today’s decision sends a strong message to the Texas Legislature that any deliberate attempt to restrict Texas minority citizens’ right to vote will not be tolerated.” They all hope that the court’s rejection of Texas’ draconian S.B. 14 will set a precedent for other states with laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, paving the way for fair and equal elections.
Except it won’t.
Voter-ID laws are just the latest tool used by Republicans to silence the voices of people who don’t fall within the usual bounds of the conservative demographic, but they are not the most effective. The most potent and practical form of election rigging has been practiced since America was founded. It is neither rare nor frowned upon. It is an anti-democratic open secret used in every election to silence the voices of millions in every state and national election. It is a nasty tactic employed by everyone from the Founding Fathers to Donald Trump, and yes, it is legal. It rewinds many of the advances made by the civil rights movement and laughs in the face of its detractors. It goes by many names: redistricting, electioneering, voter mapmaking and too many others to list.
Most people just call it “gerrymandering.”
What is gerrymandering?
If Kevin Hart were explaining this, he would begin by saying, “Well, the way our democracy is set up ... ”
Most cities and states are divided into voting districts. The city council members, state legislators and congresspeople for whom votes are cast represent these districts, which were traditionally divided by neighborhood boundaries, municipal borders and geographic characteristics (rivers, mountains, roadways, etc.).
In 1810, one of the original signers of the Constitution, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, was running for re-election and redrew the lines of a voting district to favor his party. When one of his colleagues noted that the redrawn district resembled a salamander, the term “gerrymander” was born.
Since then, lawmakers have increasingly found ways to carve out districts that are favorable to their political purposes. One of the most famous instances of gerrymandering is Illinois’ 4th District—a perfect illustration of the political term “packing.” The 71-percent-Latino congressional district follows no natural path but packs all of Chicago’s Hispanic neighborhoods into one congressional district.
This blatant map drawing ensures that the citizens will always have one Hispanic member in the House of Representatives, but reduces the impact that this large population could have throughout the city to a single blot on the map and a single voice among the 435 House members. That’s gerrymandering.
Who gets to draw the maps?
In most states, whoever is in power gets to shape the districts, which—because of gerrymandering, usually means Republicans. There are only six states that use bipartisan commissions to draw their districts. And the GOP continues to extend its no-holds-barred political approach to gerrymandering. In 2010 the Republicans devised the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, a plan to redraw the entire country’s political map to fit their needs. In the 2012 election, Democratic congressional candidates received 100,000 more votes than Republican candidates but lost 13 of the 18 seats. In other words, 51 percent of the vote equated to 28 percent of the seats.
But how do they know where to draw the lines?
Well, like most political issues, race and economics play a major role. They use demographics information, historical patterns and voting data, but isolating poor and minority neighborhoods is a key part of gerrymandering.
Isn’t this illegal?
Yes ... well ... kinda, but not really. You know America—a complex duality of racism and equivocation. Basically, the Supreme Court allows politicians to use race to draw districts as long as race isn’t the “predominant” factor and the mapmakers don’t have the “intent” to discriminate—even if the results are racist. The same ruling (Shaw v. Hunt) affirms that legislators can have blatantly partisan reasons for redistricting, but they must be subtle when it comes to race. They can use all kinds of tricks to get the results they want.
But if the population doesn’t change, how can gerrymandering change the results of an election?
Math. Tricks. Imagine a town with 50 precincts. A good gerrymanderer can decide whomever he wants to win beforehand and engineer the results. This chart explains it clearly.
Wow! That’s nefarious, but does that rise to the level of election rigging?
Yeah, you’re right. Maybe that sounds a little hyperbolic—until you realize that:
- According to Pew Research, 48 percent of registered voters identify as Democrat, while only 44 percent call themselves Republican, yet 80 percent of the country lives in a state whose government is under partial or total Republican rule (legislature and governorship).
- In the 2016 election, Democrats got more votes in the Senate but lost seats.
- Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million but won the Electoral College.
- The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead.
OK, maybe that last fact is irrelevant, but the rest are true only because gerrymandered districts have predetermined the outcome of every election. That is—by definition—rigged.
How is gerrymandering equivalent to voter suppression, though?
In 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, it had nothing to do with voter-ID laws, closed polling places, shorter registration hours, purged voter rolls or any of the other tricks conservatives constantly keep up their sleeves.
Shelby County v. Holder was about a gerrymandered district in Calera, Ala., that purposely eliminated the town’s only black City Council member. The Supreme Court ruling released all of the states with a history of voter discrimination from having to get their maps’ boundaries checked by the Justice Department—or preclearance—before drawing new maps. Every state that passed voter-identification bills, shut down early voting and limited absentee ballots used the gutting of the Voting Rights Act to do so. Gerrymandering is always the first step toward voter suppression.
How can this be stopped?
Some people advocate for a national popular vote for presidential elections. Others say the solution is to have nonpartisan commissions draw all district borders according to a set of fair criteria.
Perhaps the best hope we have of ending gerrymandering is the three upcoming cases the Supreme Court will hear this year. In two of them, the high court will consider whether states can use racial criteria in gerrymandering, but the third case—Whitford v. Gill—will determine if states can draw voting maps for purely partisan reasons.
Doesn’t all of this subvert the idea of democracy?
Could you hold on for a minute while I try to stop laughing?
America has never been a real democracy. It wasn’t until 1965, 11 years shy of the country’s 200th birthday—that every citizen got the right to vote. Five of the nation’s 45 commanders in chief (more than 10 percent) won the presidency while losing the popular vote. In America everyone gets to vote, but every vote doesn’t always count. The system was designed to be rigged, and for 200 years, politicians have used gerrymandering as the glitch in the system to rig the popular vote for the people in charge.
Even though the Washington Post has called gerrymandering “the biggest threat to democracy,” no one protests because it is too wonky. It is not a glamorous-enough cause to hold a sit-in or storm a watchtower over. It cannot fit on a protest placard, so we accept it, which is exactly why politicians can continue to silence voters without fear of penalty.
Marvin Simkin once wrote: “Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.”
Why must we always be the lamb?