Lawmakers across the country are redrawing state legislative and congressional districts in a high-stakes process known as redistricting, which happens every 10 years. The emerging consensus is that their new maps are not terrible because, nationally, neither party looks likely to gain a large number of congressional seats as a result of the altered lines. But that is a poor way to judge redistricting. The old maps were already highly skewed to maximize partisan advantage, so keeping things about where they were is no reason to cheer. Line-drawers in many states are also aggressively limiting the number of districts where minorities have a shot at winning, heading in precisely the wrong direction as the country’s non-White population grows.
The most common tactic is partisan gerrymandering, in which one party gains an unfair advantage by redrawing maps in ways that benefit its candidates. In recent cycles, Republicans have gerrymandered more than Democrats — but both parties are guilty.
Here we highlight four of the worst gerrymandering sins — crystallized in the new maps lawmakers have drawn in North Carolina, Illinois, Texas and Alabama — and how to fix them.
How Republicans gerrymander
Republicans pack Democratic cities into tiny blue districts and spread other Democrats across light red areas, diluting their influence. Here’s how they tried to do it in North Carolina, before the state Supreme Court intervened:
Some Democratic cities, such as Charlotte, are stuffed into just one small district.
Democrats in Raleigh, Durham and Cary are packed into two seats.
Greensboro, a blue city, is divided among three Republican districts, watering down its influence.
Why is this unfair? Trump won 50 percent of the vote in North Carolina, and Biden won 49 percent. With this new map, there would be 10 red seats and just three blue ones.
How Democrats gerrymander
Democrats combine urban and suburban areas where the party is most powerful with small-towns and rural areas where Republicans dominate. This is how they did it in Illinois:
Democrats connected Chicago and its suburbs to rural areas and small towns more than 100 miles south of the city.
They also drew long, winding districts connecting distant cities. Illinois’ 13th district connects Champaign to the suburbs of St. Louis, nearly 150 miles away, effectively neutralizing Republicans in the small towns in between.
The result is unfair because Republicans won 41 percent of the vote in Illinois in the last election. With this new map, they would only win three out of 17 seats.
Why gerrymandering is a problem
Some readers might shrug. Partisan state legislators have manipulated political maps since the country’s founding, the thinking goes, and political winds can blow in unexpected directions.
In fact, much has changed since 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a contorted state Senate map and lent his name to an enduring bug of U.S. politics. Partisan line-drawers now have high-resolution population data and technology that enable them to slice up their states with diabolical accuracy. Meanwhile, the country has sorted into ideologically homogeneous zones, politics have nationalized and voters have become more predictable, making gerrymandering easier than it was in the 19th century.
Partisan gerrymandering in states such as North Carolina and Illinois enables one party to take more seats than its underlying support warrants. If the North Carolina Supreme Court had not struck down the skewed congressional map state Republicans had drawn, the median congressional district would have favored President Donald Trump by 14 percentage points in 2020, so only an astonishingly large anti-GOP wave would win Democrats the number of seats the state’s overall voting patterns would suggest they should hold.
Gerrymandering can also be used to kill competitive districts. In Texas, for example, mapmakers drew deeply red and blue districts — and few that lie in the middle. To understand the damage, let’s look into how district lines have changed in north Texas since 2020.
This map shows the 2020 election in the Dallas area under the old congressional map, which was in effect from 2011 to 2021.
There were six competitive seats, with two leaning Democratic, two leaning Republican and two up for grabs.
These are the new lines. The area had six potentially competitive seats before redistricting — now it only has one.
The problem is not just the disproportionate number of seats one party might win; it is also that the politicians elected under these maps face less popular accountability than they should. The nation’s policies are determined not by median voters, who should call the shots, but by electorates that have been artificially skewed district by district. Parties that gerrymander can more easily impose radical ideologies, spurn compromise and ignore the majority’s wishes.
But gerrymandering isn’t all about partisanship. Diverse districts, where minority communities have an opportunity to elect a House member, are essential for representative democracy. But many states draw too few of these districts — and too many overwhelmingly White ones.
Alabama is one good example. Last week, a federal court ordered Alabama to redraw its new congressional map to include at least two districts in which Black voters were a sizable portion of the electorate. One in 4 Alabamians are Black — but only one of the state’s seven districts was majority Black in the map blocked by the court.
Alabama’s 7th District was the only majority Black district in the original map.
Other majority-Black areas — such as Mobile — were stuck in majority White districts.
As a result, Black voters — and Democrats — had only one seat. Alabama’s map would be more representative demographically if it had at least one more majority-Black district.
A better solution to redistricting: Independent commissions
Virginia’s new map shows there is a better way. After the initial process failed, the Virginia Supreme Court chose two experts — one from each party — who drew lines that produced a fairer map. The new map includes strong red and deep blue districts, two majority-minority districts and real battlegrounds elsewhere. Here’s the result:
The new map gave each party a few safe wins. Republicans have safe seats in the Appalachian west.
Democrats have three safe seats in Northern Virginia.
Central Virginia includes light red and light blue seats. In a wave election, they might flip.
The map also has two majority-minority, heavily Democratic seats near Richmond and Norfolk.
Virginia is a diverse, light blue state where Republicans sometimes win. The map reflects this reality: Democrats have a clear advantage in six out of 11 seats. Some seats are majority-minority.
Virginia also comports with a broader trend: States that use some kind of independent process to draw maps tend to end up with more competitive districts.
No map is perfect, because even commissions acting in good faith must balance competing interests. Drawing maps that reflect the preferences of a state’s overall electorate can conflict with ensuring that communities of interest remain in the same district. For example, Virginia’s map may overrepresent White voters because it packs many Black voters into two districts to ensure minority communities can elect representatives of their choice. Even so, maps drawn by independent commissions, who lack the glaring conflict of interest state legislators bring to the table, have over and over again proved fairer.
Ideally, every state would embrace a strong redistricting commission process, in which the line-drawers are nonpartisan, balanced between the parties or some mix that produces maps on a binding, not an advisory, basis. But only 10 states have fully independent commissions. Most state legislators have proved unwilling to surrender the power to choose their own voters.
Congress could require states to impanel redistricting commissions to draw congressional-district lines (though not state legislative maps, over which federal lawmakers have no say). An effort to do this died in the Senate last year. Alternatively, Congress could impose new standards governing congressional redistricting, requiring maps to meet certain measures of fairness. Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would do this on Jan. 19.
That leaves a final resort: the courts. Federal law empowers judges to reject political maps that curb minorities’ voting rights. But the Supreme Court in 2019 unwisely rejected arguments that courts can strike down maps that are merely noxiously partisan. For now, they must be racially discriminatory to elicit court intervention.
Gerrymandering is an increasingly severe affront to the nation’s democratic structure. The solution is as obvious as it is popular: When given the choice, voters in state after state have empowered commissions to draw the lines. As long as politicians block this simple, proven reform, the nation’s system of government will be less fair, less democratic and less responsive to the people.