Fair Representation and Redistricting: How the Lines Are Drawn

October 05, 2017

AAUW members and supporters wore “I Voted” stickers as well “It’s My Vote” tattoos.

On October 3, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case challenging partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. Gerrymandering — the practice of drawing electoral district lines to benefit one political party — poses serious problems for our democracy. In jurisdictions nationwide legislators have drawn maps that allow them to choose their voters rather than enabling voters to choose their representatives, a reversal that undermines the concept of fair representation.

AAUW has long advocated expanding voting rights and ensuring equitable political participation and representation. But poorly drawn or purposefully unfair electoral district lines can threaten these ideals. With the 2020 census looming, many advocates, legislators, and judges are taking a hard look at their electoral district boundaries. Read on to learn more about the problem of gerrymandering and how you can be part of the solution.

The Problem

Every 10 years states redraw district boundaries for both state and congressional legislators. Each state uses its own process to carry out this task, but most rely on legislatures or commissions to do the work. The way the lines are drawn affects who is elected: By packing voters who favor one party into the fewest districts possible or spreading those same voters out over many districts to guarantee that they hold minimal influence, gerrymandering works against fair representation and can lead to undue influence from one political party.

Legislators in gerrymandered districts are less accountable to voters; elections in those districts frequently become uncontested or lopsided; and in states where gerrymandering is widespread, legislatures are able to push through policies that fail to reflect voters’ values or needs.

Court Challenges

Courts are increasingly being asked to weigh in on redistricting challenges by determining whether voting maps are fair and whether the tactics used to create them are reasonable. Redistricting litigation is pending in eight states, with three cases on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia are dealing with racial gerrymandering challenges; Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are untangling issues around partisan gerrymandering; and North Carolina is addressing both racial and partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has generally held that racial gerrymandering must conform to constitutional restrictions because racial classifications are suspect under the 14th Amendment, while partisan gerrymandering is more permissible because political parties do not warrant the same protections. With the Gill v. Whitford ruling, that stance could change.

Gill v. Whitford will test the “efficiency gap,” a new measure for determining the discriminatory effect of distorted districts. Researchers tally “wasted” votes, which are votes for the losing candidates and votes for the winning candidate in excess of what was needed to win, and divide the difference between the wasted votes for each party by the total number of votes cast in the election. In states with fairly drawn districts, the two main political parties will have roughly equal numbers of wasted votes. Using this analysis, the lower court found that Wisconsin’s map was unconstitutional because it unfairly benefited one political party. Now the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether it agrees with that analysis and if it will establish a new standard for deciding what constitutes excessive partisan gerrymandering.

Legislative Solutions

In an attempt to avoid legal challenges, many states are proposing new ways of drawing their electoral district boundaries. In fact, three-quarters of states introduced some sort of redistricting reform bill during the 2017 legislation session. These bills propose a variety of solutions to the gerrymandering problem:

  • Establish a commission to draw districts.
  • Prohibit district lines from explicitly being drawn to intentionally favor or impede a political party or incumbent.
  • Prohibit the use of political data to draw districts.
  • Create or clarify criteria for drawing maps.
  • Require public engagement in the redistricting process.

Take Action

States have an important opportunity to reshape the redistricting process and better police gerrymandering abuses ahead of the 2020 census, and citizens can play a vital role in making sure reform happens.

For example, AAUW of Pennsylvania is mobilizing advocates in their state to champion redistricting reform legislation using their Advocacy in a Box Tool Kit. In addition to legislative advocacy, members are helping to educate voters about gerrymandering through public forums, map redrawing exercises, and letters to the editor. AAUW of Virginia members have teamed up with other local organizations to screen the documentary GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on Its Head and host community conversations about Virginia’s electoral maps. Other states are eyeing ballot measures as an opportunity to bring about reform.

Want to tackle redistricting reform in your state? There are many creative and informative resources available to help get you started. Check out the status of redistricting reform legislation in your state, get to know AAUW’s how-to advocacy guides for strategic tactical advice, and contact our staff so that we can support your efforts.

This article was written by Elizabeth Holden and Kate Nielson. 


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By:   |   October 05, 2017