2020 is an important year because of elections, but also because the federal government will undergo a decennial census. The census is not just an exercise in bean counting. The framers of the Constitution intended for it to be an important form of political empowerment of the people over government. Mandated under Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the Census provides data necessary to appoint representatives among the states for the House of Representatives and to redistrict legislative districts. After the Census is released, state governments redraw district lines to apportion voters into equally populous districts. Redistricting is the process by which Congressional and State Legislative maps are drawn and passed. Whichever party controls a state legislature after the 2020 elections will be able to redraw district lines based on data from the 2020 census.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral district boundaries in such a way that one party gains an unfair advantage over the opposing party. With increasing access to voting data, predicting how individuals will vote has become much easier, allowing politicians to more easily gerrymander districts in their favor. After the 2010 elections and census, Republicans gained more power in state legislatures. Lawmakers in both Democratic- and Republican-controlled states have been accused of gerrymandering, but since 2010, most changes have benefited Republicans as more Republican-controlled legislatures have redrawn election maps to fill certain districts with more Republican voters. Opponents of gerrymandering argue that it disenfranchises minority voters and undermines democratic elections.
In a June 2019 ruling, the Supreme Court decided in Rucho et al. v. Common Cause et al. that federal courts cannot determine whether election maps are too partisan, raising the stakes for the 2020 elections and the census. In its 5-4 ruling, the court found that the power to address partisan gerrymandering likes with Congress, not the courts. Since Congress has had little appetite for imposing restrictions on redistricting, gerrymandering will likely continue unless lawmakers who oppose the practice make meaningful gains at the state level. The ruling also means that both Republicans and Democrats are unlikely to face a legal challenge in the highest courts if they draw gerrymandered districts. One-party rule in many states will be left without any checks and balances, and undermine the democratic norm that each vote should count equally.
One of the most important implications of gerrymandering is that it can contribute to reducing the competitiveness of elections. According to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that monitors election reform, of the 435 congressional districts across the U.S. in 2010, 70 were rated as having a competitive partisan balance. By 2011, the number of competitive districts was down to 53, and by 2018 there were only 24 true competitive districts. (Research has also shown that other factors, including self-segregation based on political ideology, could also be contributing to the decline in competitive districts.)
To draw attention to how gerrymandering contributes to political dysfunction, one creative mind made a font typeface out of the some of the most absurdly shaped congressional districts. Ugly Gerry font’s letters are identifiable as a letter in the alphabet to the point where you could probably write a letter to your congressperson and have them be able to understand it (see screenshot to left produced by us).
What can you do? Ask your representatives in Congress and state politics to support redistricting reform and be sure to fill out and submit the 2020 Census.