By Janelle Clausen
Electoral systems and rules are inherently political – and thus always in motion. They play a key part in the maintenance or devolution of power, which in turn can have dramatic implications for democracy. The American system is no exception especially now, with the Supreme Court further reducing the effective protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Black Lives Matter movement drawing attention to institutional racial discrimination, and states preparing to redraw district boundaries in the wake of the 2020 Census.
For these reasons and more, Stephen K. Medvic’s “Gerrymandering: The Politics of Redistricting in the United States,” is a relevant and important read for understanding the American electoral system of today, where gerrymandering remains a near constant. The book is a timely, compact, and nuanced assessment of redistricting’s impact in the United States, outlining different perspectives on the phenomenon. It provides a significant history of gerrymandering, its legal status, its inner workings, and what it can mean for the health and vibrancy of democractic systems. Medvic also challenges several dominant assumptions regarding the true dangers that gerrymandering presents, while acknowledging that reform is still necessary.
The book views gerrymandering, or the attempt to forge electoral districts to benefit specific political actors, as not only an unavoidable consequence of competitive electoral politics – with attempts at shaping districts predating American independence– but foremost as a question of democratic values. There is a trade-off to every decision on structuring districts. At the same time, Gerrymandering also offers several surprising conclusions, including one that remains hopeful: the inherent complexity of redistricting means gerrymandering attempts cannot always predestine electoral outcomes.
Medvic’s historical assessment is rather comprehensive. He begins with the colonial era, a time where elected representation in colonial assemblies and later state legislatures were based on geography – a form of corporate representation. The attempts to manipulate town and county boundaries was not partisan so much as a battle between the British crown and growing democratic inclinations. The alternative to geographic representation – representation based on population – only steadily emerged in the wake of independence. Multimember districts, now a foreign concept in American politics, also used to be rather common. But gerrymandering was, and forever would be, wielded as a political weapon.
Medvic also references the infamous 1812 incident in Massachusetts for which “gerrymandering” received its name. Governor Elbridge Gerry “took the brunt of the criticism” over signing districting legislation that created one district in the shape of a salamander, although an early biographer suggests that he felt the law was “exceedingly disagreeable” but “conformed to the constitution.” As Medvic clearly documents, it was not an isolated incident. If anything, Medvic argues, unprompted redistricting and the strategic deployment of at-large elections were frequent up until the late nineteenth century. Entrenched sectionalism after the civil war led to the opposite problem: less competition and lost incentives to redistrict, leading to some districts going decades without redrawing electoral lines and disproportionate rural power. Malapportionment, Medvic seems to argue, was an American tradition – a phenomenon in the same family as gerrymandering.
Medvic also details the “legal revolution” that began in the 1960s and gave birth to the modern redistricting process. Baker v. Carr (1962), Reynolds v. Sims (1964), and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) were three landmark cases which, put together, gave federal courts jurisdiction over claims of partisan gerrymandering (at least until 2019), established the “one person, one vote” principle and required states create districts relatively equal in population. There are countless other court cases mentioned but, suffice to say, standards on district drawing have been subject to evolution and constant challenge. Layered within these debates are both technical questions – of symmetry, voting efficiency, and measurement – and what may constitute proper representation, competition, and “acceptable bias.”
In detailing the redistricting process, Medvic notes that creating “neutral districts” can be impossible. Sometimes competition can lead to disproportionate results. Districts, which are mostly drawn by state legislatures, also must try meeting several procedural minimums: equal populations, the preservation of minority strength, relative contiguity and compactness, protecting communities of interest, be single-member districts, and preservation of political subdivisions. All of these things can end up competing, in that fulfilling one mandate can come at the cost of another.
Medvic also touches on technology’s role in the districting process, how the human role in redistricting may never be fully erased, and computers’ potential – both good and bad – in the process. Computers were envisioned as powerful tools for fairness in districting as far back as the 1970s despite their costs. Today and in the future, Medvic acknowledges, the precision of the technology could allow for pinpoint mapping and manipulation. But he also notes that the reduced costs of this technology can allow for greater public involvement, as some states have turned to the public for creating alternative districts.
One might then ask, what are the consequences of gerrymandering? How do we alleviate it? Much like the rest of the book, Medvic draws upon a wide range of studies to lay out varying perspectives and possibilities on the consequences of redistricting. This is a process he acknowledges may paint a less than certain picture on what redistricting can do. He offers evidence on how redistricting in some cases can depress competitiveness and voter turnout, for example, or how partisan control can actually increase it. There may be no concrete advantage for a party’s prospects in the long-term with districting and the impact on polarization may be marginal, with grouping effects possibly playing a larger role. Overall, Medvic suggests gerrymandering influences the American political system – just not as apocalyptically as some believe, at least at present.
Nevertheless, Medvic recognizes the importance of electoral reform for democracy. Not only is there widespread disapproval of gerrymandering, he notes, but retaining the system without some change can threaten the legitimacy of the electoral system. “Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion to reach is that while gerrymandering may not be as pernicious as it is often portrayed, neither is it entirely innocent,” Medvic writes. “As such, it is worth giving serious thought as to how redistricting can be reformed to reduce the likelihood – or the public perception – that it damages fair elections.” Given that democracy scholars have consistently stated free and fair elections are a procedural minimum for countries to be called democratic, this is a reasonable assumption to make.
The array of options, which vary in political plausibility, range from modest changes to systemic. Among them are utilizing non-partisan bureaucrats who create plans for approval, using redistricting committees with varying levels of independence from state officials, and even the use of multimember districts with proportional electoral rules. The latter was something only formally banned in 1967 by federal law, even though single-member districts were technically mandated as of 1842, meaning that such a change may be “’radical’ only in the American context” but, as his historical record shows, not completely unprecedented. Each of the potential changes comes with minor variations and tweaks best read independently. But “none of these should be viewed as a silver bullet, capable of transforming the American electoral system into a perfectly functioning democracy,” Medvic writes. “There are serious problems with elections in the United States, and with the political system more broadly, that have nothing to do with gerrymandering.”
Gerrymandering can come across as a bit dense and tightly compact at times, while remaining hesitant to take on many grand declarations. Medvic’s background as a political scientist and researcher comes through in that regard – after all, as a former research methods professor once emphasized, “prove, proves, and proved” are all bad words. There is also fairly robust sourcing, with one chapter having as many as 141 endnotes and others having at least 80. Taken together, this can be seen as a net strength – readers are welcome to come to their own conclusions, investigate the source materials, and check the further recommended reading.
Ultimately, Medvic succeeded at creating a book relevant to current conversations on democracy while serving as a good “general introduction to redistricting and gerrymandering in the United States,” as was initially intended. Gerrymandering: The Politics of Redistricting in the United States, published by Polity Press, is available on Amazon or alternatively through the publisher’s website.