A panel of federal judges recently struck down the congressional map for the state of North Carolina because of what they say is unconstitutional gerrymandering. Under normal circumstances this would be important but not an incredibly-noteworthy occurrence. North Carolina has had its Republican-drawn district maps thrown out in the past for illegal racial gerrymandering that targeted African-American voters. The unique aspect of this more recent case is that it is the first time a congressional district map has been thrown out for explicitly targeting those who hold certain political beliefs.
For those unfamiliar with the term, gerrymandering is essentially when politicians redraw the maps of voting districts to give themselves the best chance at winning reelection by concentrating opposition voters in a few districts or spreading them out to diminish their power. In states like North Carolina, those in the state legislature control these maps. The party in power can therefore redistrict in a way that all but guarantees their dominance in elections.
Take Wisconsin, for example. Republicans controlled the redistricting process in 2011, and used computer models and voter data to lock in their control of the state legislature. In fact, the following year, Republican candidates got only 48.6 percent of the vote statewide but captured 60 out of 99 seats in the legislature. While Democrats are generally concentrated in cities, which would explain Republicans doing a little better than statewide numbers suggest, this outright dominance is primarily due to the redistricted maps.
Both parties have historically engaged in some form of gerrymandering, but it has primarily been a Republican undertaking in recent years. Any state maps that have been struck down in the courts recently have come from Republican-controlled legislatures, and research has shown that there are four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or Assembly districts than Democratic ones.
The decision to strike down North Carolina’s maps for being too partisan is a victory for democracy and equal representation. Judge James Wynn, in a 191-page opinion, declared that Republicans had been motivated by “invidious partisan intent” and that “a wealth of evidence proves the General Assembly’s intent to ‘subordinate’ the interests of non-Republican voters and ‘entrench’ Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.” The core justification for the decision was that the maps violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which was the unanimous opinion of the three judges (including one appointed by George W. Bush).
To understand why partisan gerrymandering should be unconstitutional we need only examine why gerrymandering members of a particular race or religion would be unconstitutional. It is unconstitutional to suppress the voting power of a bloc as a result of the color of one’s skin or someone’s ancestry, just as it would be unconstitutional to suppress the voting power of a group that has particular beliefs about religion. If it is unconstitutional to gerrymander based on ones beliefs/values, then it follows that partisan gerrymandering must also be illegal. Intending to “subordinate the interests of non-Republican voters” amounts to a repression of those who hold values and beliefs contrary to those currently in power. Such actions are a serious threat to democracy. Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.
In a few months the U.S. Supreme Court will announce its decision on a court case involving the aforementioned gerrymandered maps in Wisconsin. It would be a significant victory for the democratic institutions of the United States if they went so far as to ban gerrymandering in any way, shape, or form. No matter how gerrymandering occurs or who it targets, it will end up violating the rights of some group of people. Partisan gerrymandering is no exception. Packing people with beliefs that you don’t agree with into a few voting districts to marginalize their political power is antithesis to the values of America. Gerrymandering must be outlawed if we wish to realize the democratic ideals we strive to achieve.
Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.