How Can We Combat Gerrymandering?

Issues
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A woman seated in the front row of a group of folding chairs holds a sign which reads "Fair maps now".
A woman holds a sign while attending a public hearing of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on October 26, 2021 in Flint Michigan. Photo by Tyler Stabile

In the previous installment of the blog series “Gerrymandering 101,” we discussed how gerrymandering makes it easier for a politician and members of their own party to win elections and hurts both voters and our democracy.

But while the harms of gerrymandering cannot be ignored, it is possible combat gerrymandering and ensure that voters can choose their leaders, instead of letting politicians pick their voters.

Below we will focus on three solutions to gerrymandering: using web tools to identify gerrymandered maps, establishing independent redistricting commissions (IRCs) to create fair maps and advocating for the passage of federal legislation to ban gerrymandering.

1. Using Web Tools To Identify Gerrymandered Maps

In order to understand the impact of gerrymandering on our voting maps, we need to be able to measure it.

There are several free online web tools that people can use to upload proposed redistricting maps and determine whether they are fair or gerrymandered. These include Dave's Redistricting, Districtr and Campaign Legal Center’s (CLC) own PlanScore.org, which empowers advocates, journalists, policymakers and members of the public to assess and score maps.

Planscore visitors can use the library feature to contextualize the gerrymandering taking place during this cycle by clicking on states and comparing them to other states or previous maps from the same state. It also allows people to spot gerrymandering using the four main measures that academics and experts in the field use.

With PlanScore and similar web tools, people can measure partisan gerrymandering directly, incentivizing map drawers to be transparent during the process and create fair maps.

2. Establishing IRCs To Create Fair Maps

Another way to combat gerrymandering is to limit the power of self-interested politicians in the mapmaking process. This is where IRCs come in. They are separate bodies from the state legislature that are responsible for drawing the districts used in congressional and state legislative elections.

The exact structure of IRCs can vary state-by-state, but they are generally a voter-centric reform that ensures voters — not politicians — decide how political maps are drawn. In several states, it is possible for voters to call for the creation of IRCs through ballot initiatives as has happened in states like Michigan and Colorado in recent years.

In addition to putting more power in the hands of voters, they also establish standards for who can serve on a commission. People who were recently or are currently elected officials, political party officials, lobbyists or government employees are often prohibited from serving on their commission.

IRCs are also responsible for ensuring that the maps drawn meet various criteria for fair and competitive districts and comply with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to ensure that all Americans can have equitable representation in government.

In short, IRCs are an effective tool for empowering voters to decrease gerrymandering at the state level and create fair maps.

3. Advocating for Federal Legislation To Ban Gerrymandering

Finally, to prohibit gerrymandering at the national level, Congress should pass the Freedom to Vote Act. Of any federal legislation considered recently, this bill would do the most to crack down on gerrymandering and open new judicial avenues to challenge maps that unfairly advantage one party. 

Due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2019 case Rucho v. Common Cause, federal courts are powerless to prevent states from drawing new maps for purely partisan gain. The Freedom to Vote Act would change this and give federal courts the ability to determine when a gerrymander has gone too far.

As CLC’s Georgetown Justice Fellow Orion de Nevers previously explained, “The Freedom to Vote Act supplies federal courts with the standard that was missing in Rucho. If passed, the law would prohibit states from implementing a redistricting plan that intentionally or effectively favors or disfavors one political party.”

It would employ standard quantitative measures of partisan fairness to see if each voter’s vote counts equally and make it easier to bring legal challenges to a disputed map by permitting individual residents of a state and the U.S. Attorney General to sue to enforce the law.

It would also promote greater uniformity in enforcement by having all partisan gerrymandering cases be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

The maps that are being finalized now will shape our lives and our communities for the next decade. We have the tools to end gerrymandering, demand equitable representation for all and ensure that Americans can live under fair maps. We must use them to allow voters, not politicians, to decide the outcome of elections. 

As CLC's communications assistant, Georgia writes and edits content for the website.