In the 2016 elections, 46% of North Carolina voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates to the US House of Representatives. Yet only 24% of North Carolina voters ended up with Democratic representation. Of North Carolina’s 13 Congressmen, 10 are Republicans and 3 are Democrats, even though the voters’ dictate should have resulted in twice that many Democratic representatives. How did this mismatch happen? How did a Republican vote in North Carolina come to be worth nearly three times as much as a Democratic vote?
The answer lies in a practice known as gerrymandering, by which state legislators draw congressional districts to benefit their own political party. Since 2010, Republicans across the country have executed a national plan to gerrymander the congressional map, working systematically, state by state, to engineer an entrenched majority in the House of Representatives. Instead of voters choosing their representatives, Republican representatives chose their voters.
The story of Republican gerrymandering—and its corrosive effect on our democracy—starts with the US census. Four hundred thirty-five congressional seats comprise the US House of Representatives. Each seat represents a congressional district apportioned among the states by population. Every ten years, the US census counts every resident in the country, and as the population changes, our congressional districts change to ensure fair representation in the House. States that see population increases may gain new congressional districts, leading to more seats in the House, while states that see their populations dwindle are at risk of losing districts. No matter which states gain or lose districts after the census, the total number of districts (435) does not change.
"Instead of voters choosing their representatives, Republican representatives chose their voters."
As a result of shifts in population, new congressional maps must be drawn. In most states, the majority party in the state legislature appoints a committee of partisan legislators to redraw the map. In the past, this process has been used by both parties to draw districts in their favor. But in recent years, Republicans have carried out an unprecedented operation to gerrymander districts across the US, with the goal of disenfranchising Democratic voters and rigging the system to preserve their majority.
In 2009, as President Obama took office with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, Republicans looked ahead to the 2010 census and developed a plan called REDMAP, or Redistricting Majority Project, to target state races. By investing campaign money to support Republicans in key state-level races, the GOP won majorities in 10 of the 15 states that would reapportion their districts. Using advanced software to target their desired voters, Republican operatives redrew congressional borders to pack the greatest numbers of Democratic voters into the fewest possible districts.
They made no effort to conceal their partisan strategy. We can see this in maps of congressional districts that blatantly fail to meet legal standards of contiguity and compactness.
In North Carolina, for example, the 4th Congressional District branches into two separate arms that combine progressive Chapel Hill with Raleigh to the east and Fayetteville to the south. By packing affluent and educated liberal-leaning voters into a single district, Republicans diluted the impact of their votes. In Louisiana, the 2nd District winds in a crescent shape from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, disproportionately concentrating black voters to diminish their representation.
This corrupt practice has a corrosive effect on our democracy. It threatens our Constitution’s vision of the House of Representatives—a people’s house “apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers”—by making Democratic votes worth less than Republican votes. In 2012, the first congressional election since the census, Democrats received 51% of major-party votes for House seats, but won only 47% of those seats.
Gerrymandering also degrades our national discourse, cloistering representatives in safe districts and away from voters with different values. Today, many GOP representatives fear a primary challenge on the right more than they fear their Democratic opponents. As a result, the House Republican majority is more ideologically radical, more dismissive of compromise, and less motivated to govern.
While gerrymandering remains a serious problem in many states, recent court cases and proposed reforms have been gaining traction. In November, a federal district court ruled Wisconsin’s Republican gerrymandering unconstitutional—the first federal court ruling in over thirty years against redistricting for partisan gain. Ohio and Indiana are considering state redistricting reform proposals, and, in North Carolina, there are multiple cases contending partisan and racial gerrymandering in the state’s congressional and legislative maps. One week ago, in a major decision that could impact Virginia's 2017 elections, the Supreme Court ruled that Virginia had used race to gerrymander twelve House of Delegates districts.
At flippable, we support efforts to litigate gerrymandered congressional districts, as well as proposals for redistricting reform. At the same time, we recognize that the most effective way to end systematic Republican gerrymandering is to help Democrats gain control of state legislatures. That’s why we’re focused on flipping seats that have maximum impact at the state level.
By reclaiming state legislatures, Democrats can repair the redistricting processes that have afforded Republicans so much ill-gotten power. Flipping state seats from Red to Blue will not only allow Democrats to perform better in national elections and enact a progressive platform. It will also help us heal our democracy, by ensuring that each person’s vote has equal weight, no matter their home address.
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