In the upcoming midterm elections, more than a sixth of House Representatives will run unopposed. According to the Economist, seventy-seven single-party House races will take place on election day this November.
These are depressing statistics for any democratic society, especially for a Congress with an abysmal job approval rating at 12.8%.
The easy and most often-cited explanation for election one-sidedness is gerrymandering. Republicans are typically depicted as the instigators behind this practice, masters of redrawing district lines to retake House seats for the GOP. Many Democrats are already blaming gerrymandering for their inevitable losses in the House this year. Democrats are guilty of the practice as well, but largely are perceived as the good guys in the fight for voter equality.
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That perception is mostly accurate. Gerrymandering has historical roots in limiting the freedoms of minority populations. After Brown v. Board of Education, the tactic was used – primarily by Republicans — as a workaround to keep segregation alive and well. It took nearly 20 years for the Supreme Court to step in with Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia; United States v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education. That ruling, issued in 1972, stated “The Supreme Court refuses to allow public school systems to avoid desegregation by creating new, mostly or all-white ‘splinter districts.’”
Two years later, however, in the Milliken v. Bradley ruling, the Supreme Court effectively stopped desegregation plans for school districts with high minority populations. The ruling deemed that segregation was constitutional, as long as it happened of its own accord and wasn’t an implicit school policy. This opened the door for the use of gerrymandering as a legal form of drawing racial boundaries, tilting the scale a little further in favor of those in power. It’s difficult to win an election when Washington is working as hard as it can to ensure that you can’t, and never will be able to do so.
Following the 2012 House elections, Mother Jones published a report estimating that gerrymandering produced roughly 7 additional seats for Republicans, as well as about 2 seats for Democrats. The data shows Republicans attempted to take about 13 seats via gerrymandering in six states, but had their numbers brought down by nonpartisan states. The conclusion of the report was that gerrymandering is used surprisingly often with successful results, but may not be solely accountable for the Republican House majority.
Still, the data from that election shows that Republicans use gerrymandering tactics more successfully and more often. The practice has roots in racial segregation that undoubtedly continue to this day, albeit to a lesser degree. The bottom line is securing votes, but Republicans apparently view a higher population of white residents as leading to more votes. According to The Cook Political Report, gerrymandering created “an average Republican House district that is 75 percent white and an average Democratic House district that is 51 percent white” in the 2012 elections. As much as the GOP purports to be changing their approach to appeal to minority voters, they’re still relying on the easy tactic: making their districts more white.
Again using the 2012 election as an example, many states that voted for Obama, Democratic Senators and Democratic state legislators still somehow ended up with Republican representatives in the House. The New York Times cited Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as the most drastic examples. Redistricting has an obvious effect on government at all levels, and it’s been used to create an unfair balance in representation. Republicans correctly take on most of the blame, but everyone is responsible for allowing the practice to continue. Seventy-seven seats will be unopposed in November, and several more will be won as a result of gerrymandering by both parties. That hardly seems like democracy.