Gerrymandering has been under the microscope of legal scrutiny for years and even decades. Cases in North Carolina and Maryland are currently under review by the Supreme Court, having been declared by lower courts to demonstrate “unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.”
In Maryland, Republicans filed a suit claiming that Democrats exceeded acceptable standards in drawing the lines of the state’s 6th Congressional District, causing long-time Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett’s loss to Democrat John Delaney. Federal judges agreed, declaring that “plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated that Maryland’s 2011 redistricting law violates the First Amendment by burdening both the plaintiffs’ representational rights and associational rights based on their party affiliation and voting history.” Prior to the 2011 redistricting, Democrats in Maryland held a six to two advantage, which jumped to seven to one with the addition of the 6th District. This partisan skew contrasts with the state’s 2016 presidential results, in which just under 40 percent of voters chose Donald Trump versus the 60 percent who supported Hillary Clinton. Yet thanks to gerrymandering, Republican voters fail to be adequately represented in their state’s congressional delegation.
Just like in the Maryland case, the skew of North Carolina’s congressional delegation fails to reflect its population’s preferences. Under the current maps, 10 of 13 congressional districts are held by Republicans. Yet during the 2016 presidential election, voters were divided evenly along party lines, with roughly 50 percent of state voters in favor of Trump and 46 percent for Clinton. Plaintiffs in the case pointed to the division of a historically black college campus in Greensboro, where the Democratic-leaning bloc was split into two Republican districts, as a prime example of partisan influence on district drawing. The District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled that the map used in the 2018 election was “unconstitutionally gerrymandered for partisan reasons,” but concluded the decision came too close to the midterm elections to redraw districts. Due to fears that rescheduling the election would confuse voters and depress voter turnout, the court allowed the state to use the existing district configuration in the midterms, but barred it from using doing so again in any future elections.
Both cases demonstrate how parties in power can rig districts to their advantage,suppressing representation for minority groups. While the Supreme Court, which has long sidestepped the issue of partisan gerrymandering, could prove a powerful force in stopping such abuse, another solution is available and at the ready for Congress,The Fair Representation Act (FRA), introduced by U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) in 2017 and slated to be reintroduced this session, offers a comprehensive solution to gerrymandering by creating larger, multi-winner districts in which representatives are elected using ranked choice voting.
Consider how the FRA could work when applied to Maryland and North Carolina, under computer generated maps meant to approximate how an independent commission might draw multi-winner districts in these states.
Maryland would be divided into two multi-winner districts, The first district would consist of five representatives: three strong Democratic seats, one strong Republican seat, and one that leans Republican. The district’s overall partisanship would be split between 63.3 percent Democrats and 37 percent Republicans. The second district would feature three representatives: two strong Democratic seats and one strong Republican seat, reflecting overall partisanship of about 58.5 percent Democrats versus 41.5 percent Republican voters.
In North Carolina, the Fair Representation Act divides the 13 seats into three districts; the first and second district each include two strong Democratic seats, two strong Republican seats, and one leaning Republican seat. Both share similar partisan composition -- the first district includes 44 percent Democratic support and 56 Republican support, while the second district breaks down 46 percent to 54 percent in favor of the Republicans. The third and smallest district would contain one strong Democratic seat, one strong Republican seat, and one swing seat with slight Democratic advantage. District voters are more equally divided, with about 52 percent Democratic support, and 48 percent Republican support. Both individually and as a whole, the three districts would more closely match the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Current hearings give the Supreme Court another opportunity to strike down partisan gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina. But these are just two of the dozens of cases -- and many more examples not in courts -- in which the majority party has unfairly manipulated maps to suppress the voice of the minority. The Fair Representation Act offers a constitutional and effective solution that, if enacted, would make gerrymandering a problem of the past and create elections that are truly competitive, reflective, and fair.