Drawing the Line: How Gerrymandering Determines Whose Votes Have Power

The ongoing battle against gerrymandering will determine whose votes will have value, whose voices will be heard and what public policy ideas on issues like women’s and civil rights stand a chance of becoming law.

Senate candidate Kate Compton Barr with her children Max (left), 6, and Winnie, 8. (Jenny Warburg)

Kate Compton Barr is running for office, but she doesn’t expect to defeat her Republican opponent. In fact, the motto of her campaign to become a North Carolina state senator from District 37 in suburban Charlotte is “Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t win.”

Barr’s candidacy highlights a major problem in the U.S. political system. After Republicans managed to flip North Carolina’s Supreme Court in 2022, the court reversed a previous ruling that struck down Republican-engineered election maps. GOP lawmakers quickly drew new maps reinstating a heavy Republican tilt. These changes included transforming District 37 from a safe Democratic seat to a very Republican one.

When the sitting Democratic state senator declined to seek reelection, Barr, a behavioral scientist, stepped in. “District 37 is so gerrymandered that I don’t stand a chance,” Barr concedes on her campaign website. “But we deserve to have two names on the ballot.”

Voters in the Tar Heel State have experienced political whiplash this decade, with multiple district maps swinging elections back and forth. But they are not alone. Across the country, voters and interest groups are waging fierce battles over new maps that could influence the balance of power in state legislatures—and in the U.S. Congress—for years to come.

The outcome of these fights inside and outside the courts will determine whose votes will have value in elections, what community voices will be heard and ultimately what public policy ideas—on issues from reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights to student debt relief to employment, education and immigration reform—have a real chance of becoming law.

Any healthy, functioning democracy operates on two core principles: that each person’s vote counts equally, and that the law applies to everyone the same, regardless of wealth, race, gender or political party. Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing district boundaries to advantage a specific party or community, poses a grave threat to both of these foundational principles.

At its most extreme, a gerrymandered map can prevent a statewide voting majority from controlling a majority of the legislative seats. The statewide popular vote for state legislative candidates in Wisconsin, for instance, tilts slightly toward Democrats, but the district maps have yielded the GOP near supermajorities since 2020.

Organizations and individuals outside the Supreme Court on March 26, 2019, as the Court heard cases that would decide whether drawing election maps to help the party in power ever violates the Constitution. (Aurora Samperio / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The U.S. Constitution requires that election districts be redrawn after the official census each decade in order to reflect population shifts and ensure that the population of political districts remains roughly equal. The process applies to districts that elect city councilors, school boards, state lawmakers and members of the U.S. House. In theory, the principle of one person, one vote assures every voter roughly equal power to affect elections and to receive fair representation.

But the reality of redistricting is a more complex matter. Traditional principles like district compactness (using borders with regular shapes) and contiguity (assuring districts are not fragmented) give way to distortions due to partisan politics and racial discrimination.

In a number of states, map drawers carefully select district lines to reduce the voting power of one political party (partisan gerrymandering) or of a particular racial group (racial gerrymandering) or both.

These tactics come at the expense of voters and their interest in achieving fair, responsive political representation. Rather than voters choosing their representatives, gerrymandering empowers politicians to choose their voters.

Across the country, voters and interest groups are waging fierce battles over new maps that could influence the balance of power in state legislatures—and in the U.S. Congress—for years to come.

One part of the problem is who draws the maps. Most states draw districts through the legislative process. A simple majority in each chamber of a state legislature draws and approves a map proposal, and the state’s governor signs it. Gerrymandering is often a temptation when a single party controls all of these offices, as is the case now in 40 states (Republicans today enjoy 23 so-called trifectas; Democrats, 17).

In a legislature-centered redistricting process, the majority can push through their map without the votes of opposition lawmakers or input from the public.

In four states (Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and California), maps are created not by the legislature but by independent, citizen-led commissions. These bodies are engineered to minimize the influence of the partisan interests that are commonplace in legislatures and to emphasize the role of citizen input, transparency and consistency in drawing lines.

The basic tools of any gerrymander include a pair of techniques: cracking and packing.

  • Cracking splits similarly aligned and geographically close voters (like a neighborhood or city) across multiple districts. With their voting strength diluted, these groups struggle to elect their preferred candidates in any district.
  • Packing is the opposite: cramming identifiable groups of disfavored voters into as few districts as possible. The “packed” groups are likely to elect their preferred candidates quite easily in a few areas, but the groups’ voting strength is weakened everywhere else.

The current decade provides plenty of examples of each. In Tennessee, the Republican-led legislature divided Davidson County, home of Nashville, multiple ways to unseat a longtime Democratic incumbent whose old district was centered in the capital city. Democrats in Illinois achieved a similar result by connecting the Cook County suburbs of Chicago (a Democratic stronghold) with parts of outlying counties that trend Republican.

They can customize any district to produce almost any desired political outcome, including securing a majority in a state legislature for a party receiving only a minority of the vote.

The citizens whose voting strength is diluted in the gerrymanders above support a given party. A second variety of gerrymandering targets voters on the basis of race, channeling them into select districts. In a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, South Carolina is appealing a finding that it unlawfully diluted the power of Black voters by shifting them from a Charleston district into an existing Black-majority congressional district.

In all of its forms, the art of gerrymandering has become surgical in its precision. Sophisticated data allows map drawers to learn the voting history and likely ideology of the voters in a given precinct—often down to the street. With such detailed information, they can customize any district to produce almost any desired political outcome, including securing a majority in a state legislature for a party receiving only a minority of the vote. A system that consistently denies governing power to the majority vote, delivers lopsided outcomes and discourages opposing campaigns does little to indicate a commitment to letting the people choose.

An obvious consequence of this antidemocratic effect is the stifling of policy outcomes that reflect most people’s needs. Gerrymandered legislatures are out of touch with statewide majorities by design, so it’s no surprise that their output is out of step with where the public stands on key issues.

Perhaps the best evidence of this comes from Ohio, where the decidedly gerrymandered legislature attempted to forestall a public ballot measure to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution. After rejecting legislative efforts by the Republican-led legislature to make it harder to pass ballot measures, the public overwhelmingly approved the initiative this past November.

Gerrymandering affects all Americans, but particular costs are borne by communities of color, and the racial discrimination that in many cases drives gerrymandering should not be ignored. Residential segregation and racially polarized voting patterns, especially in Southern states, make targeting communities of color an enticing (though also illegal) strategy for the party that controls redistricting.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made matters worse in two ways.

  • First, in 2013 the Court limited the application of the Voting Rights Act in reviewing new district maps in states with an established history of vote denial and dilution. Previously, such states required approval from the U.S. attorney general before altering their maps.
  • Second, in 2019, in Rucho v. Common Cause, a case out of North Carolina, the Court ruled that federal courts could not hear claims of partisan gerrymandering because they were “political questions.”

These rulings have, not coincidentally, come at the very moment when an increasingly diverse electorate has transformed the U.S. political landscape. The country’s population is rapidly becoming younger and less white. The South, especially, has benefited from this change, as people of color are largely responsible for the growth in states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Unfortunately, gerrymandering has prevented these demographic changes from translating into increased political opportunity for their communities—Republicans in control of these states have opposed maps that would reflect their growing influence. These states have therefore become epicenters in the legal fight to strike down maps that fail to provide an equal opportunity for voters of color to elect candidates.

The map below shows the states where gerrymandering lawsuits have been filed since 2020, when the latest maps were drawn. In some of the most populated states in the country, there are claims of partisan or racial gerrymandering—or both. A number of cases are still pending four years into the decade.

(Brennan Center for Justice)

Reforms to create fairer, more independent redistricting processes are the most meaningful way to stop the trend of gerrymandering, which puts the concerns of politicians before the public. A comprehensive agenda would include banning partisan gerrymandering, strengthening protections from discrimination for communities of color and requiring transparency and public participation in map drawing, including grassroots organizations advocating for their communities.

The example of Ohio presents concrete hope for change. In the wake of the state’s success in enshrining reproductive rights in 2023, the public is again mobilizing to undo state gerrymanders by creating a citizen-led independent redistricting commission, what many view as the gold standard for drawing maps that reflect the interests of voters instead of politicians. The provision has bipartisan support, and carries the potential for a system-changing shift in the line-drawing process.

At the federal level, advocates are urging Congress to adopt two pieces of legislation that could help end gerrymandering: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Both would help remedy the problems that the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court has mandated, which have effectively limited the federal guardrails for line drawing.

Gerrymandering is fundamentally undemocratic, but we have the tools to end it. We the people need to send a clear message: The time for change is now.

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About and

Kareem Crayton is the senior director of the Voting Rights and Representation Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.
Michya Cooper is an associate with the Voting Rights and Representation Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, which works to implement pro-voter reforms.