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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

Democracy on life support

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine called me out in the middle of class for not paying attention to the lecture, and beckoned me to stop goofing around my computer. She asked me what I was doing, unable to figure out the purpose of the website I was playing around in to pass the time. My reply was simple: “Irene, I’m gerrymandering”. To her, it was a completely foreign concept. To me, it’s been the focus of one of my latest pastimes this academic year.

Every ten years, after the census is finished, the United States undergoes an often under-looked process that is crucial to the adequate functioning of American democracy. Lawmakers gather together and hit the drawing boards, tasked with crafting new maps for their states to use to elect representatives to the House of Representatives and state legislatures. Lawmakers are supposed to rely on fresh census data to create districts that accurately reflect any movements within the state’s population, in what is meant to produce congressional delegations that take into account a state’s true demographic composition. The districts ought to be compact, contiguous, and have equal populations. In addition, some states are required by law to create majority-minority districts to foster a higher degree of diversity within elected government. On paper, the decennial redistricting process sounds like an opportunity for the United States to further solidify over two hundred years of democratic tradition and incorporate the changes that have come about in the ever shifting American demographic landscape. In reality, the vast majority of Americans live in maps that were drawn to purposefully exploit partisan advantages and entrench the interests of the nation’s political establishment through flagrant gerrymandering.

Although it is not an exclusively American problem, gerrymandering has hindered the Founding Fathers’ dreams of a truly representative democracy since the early nineteenth century, when the United States was still a nascent nation. Through this practice, those in charge of mapmaking can carefully split and regroup voters and their communities to create electoral districts advantageous to their interests and detrimental to their rivals’. They can pack like-minded voters to waste their votes, crack neighborhoods to dilute their electoral influence, and splash wiggly lines across states to manufacture districts that create the oddest of shapes, all with the purpose of securing their own agenda. In a country that prides itself in the freedom its citizens get to enjoy, the overwhelming majority of Americans now reside in electoral districts where the outcome of their congressional elections has already been decided, thanks to the successful scheming of backdoor dealings that pose a direct attack on the nation’s electoral integrity.

Throughout the 2021-22 redistricting cycle, I’ve religiously followed each state’s developments, going through state’s proposals to witness firsthand how the process comes to be delegitimized through partisan interference. In states like Maryland, fair proposals from both sides of the aisle gave way to what can kindly be referred to as a monstrosity. In an effort to dilute more conservative rural voters in the northwestern part of the state, the Maryland state legislature cut the region up into pieces, blending each part with a segment of the Washington metropolitan area, taking a whole region’s voice away to shore up the state’s Democratic congressional delegation. On the other hand, Republicans in Tennessee cracked liberal leaning Nashville and its suburbs into three different districts, grouping them with rural areas and eliminating a whole city’s fundamental right to elect a representative of their own. Examples like this repeat themselves throughout the country, with perpetrators coming from Democrats and Republicans alike. In New Jersey, New York, and Illinois, Democratic mapmakers ravaged through any geographic considerations to guarantee their own chances in future elections, while Republicans in Texas drew their own districts in such a way you could barely discern the state’s new competitive nature from the sheer number of safe Republican districts created. Overall, this decade is poised to have the smallest number of competitive districts in recent memory, minimizing opportunities for large shifts in the balance of power that enable whoever is in power to deliver on their promises without having to whittle them down through paralyzing compromise and never ending negotiations.

The lack of tossup competitions in races from Maine to California encourages politicians to refrain from bipartisanship, as their likelihood of losing elections decreases considerably by representing districts composed of mostly their partisans. Without serious general election contests, they would face no accountability beyond their party’s base, bringing down the bridges democracy desperately needs at the moment. This gives more relevance to primary elections, where intra-party battles between radicals and even-more-radicals will only help push elected representatives to further extremes as they compete to win the nomination in a race dominated by a highly polarized partisan electorate. If the country’s dysfunctionality seems to be at a breaking point right now, the future seems even more grim.

Some states, like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia, managed to come out of the redistricting process with fair maps that accurately reflect the political views of their state. Fair maps for the United States are possible, and the methods to guarantee them have been in place in many states for many cycles. The opportunity to fix these issues for the coming decade has sadly come and gone, but the challenge for activists throughout this decade is to rally behind this cause, and uphold Americans’ inalienable right to choose who represents them, rather than the other way around.

Pablo Lacayo is a junior majoring in finance with a minor in Chinese. Originally from Nicaragua, he is now a happy resident of Stanford Hall. Reach him at over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.