"One person, one vote." This phrase originated from a 1960s Supreme Court ruling requiring states to draw legislative districts equally, in accordance with the national census taken every ten years. However, while the idea that every individual's vote should have equal importance seems like a foundational component of democracy, the requirement to draw districts of roughly equal population has not ensured that every vote has equal weight in our political process.
Today, lawmakers across the United States are in hot water for drawing voting maps that favor their own political parties, a process known as "gerrymandering." The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard cases from Wisconsin and Maryland, and already this year federal and state courts have struck down gerrymandered districts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania as unconstitutional. Amid the court cases, citizen groups are assembling and proposing more fair ways of determining districting.
Voters are leveling the playing field through their collective action. This collection includes several stories that highlight working solutions in the fight against partisan gerrymandering.
Click here for more stories in the Solutions Story Tracker on Democracy.
- Define “gerrymandering.” Identify some of the ways that gerrymandering can be employed when creating district lines.
- What effect does gerrymandering have on the political process? Discuss the ways in which the creation of favorable voting districts affects both political efficacy and politicization in American politics.
- What is the “efficiency gap?” After reading the piece by Sam Kean, assess whether you think the efficiency gap is a useful metric. Why or why not? Discuss its advantages and disadvantages.
- After reading the story by Erick Trickey about Michigan’s battle against gerrymandering, assess and explain some of the factors that made it possible for the group, Voters Not Politicians, to submit over 400,000 signatures to lawmakers. How does Michigan compare to other states?
- How does your state decide its voting districts? Are there any initiatives working to change the way district lines are drawn in your state?
- Choose an Issue Area or a Success Factor related to strengthening democracy. Then, create a collection and select at least 4 (or more) stories from the Solution’s Story Tracker that relate to your topic. If working in groups, each group can present on the issues and solutions they found most compelling.
- Journalism is a collaborative practice: reporters are writing for their community, but they also depend on community members as sources for information. Indeed, the very purpose of journalism, according to the American Press Institute, is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. With that in mind, SJN wants to help connect news readers and journalists. Beside the name of the journalist on any of our story pages or the results page of the Solutions Story Tracker, you’ll find a Twitter icon that will link you directly to the journalists profile. Tweet at them with questions or compliments about their piece - you might be surprised by how much writers want to engage with their audiences! Don’t forget to tag us too (@soljourno) and use the hashtag #journalistintheclassroom if you are reading as part of an academic assignment.
- “Gerrymandering” refers to the process of drawing district lines in a way that gives favor or advantage to one political party over another. Gerrymandering can be done along partisan lines, aiming to reduce the influence of one political party over another. This can be achieved by “packing” opponents into a smaller number of districts, or by “cracking,” which spreads a small amount of voters from the opposing side across many districts, diluting their influence. Racial gerrymandering, in particular, refers to gerrymandering in which districts are drawn to reduce or prevent a minority community from gaining representation. To familiarize students with the process of gerrymandering, you may wish to have them engage with this simplified simulation: found here.
- In addition to skewing political representation and reducing the public’s faith in the fairness of the political process, the process also makes it less likely that representatives will have to consider diverse viewpoints or moderate their views to appeal to constituents. Having districts that are largely ideologically homogeneous, therefore, increases political polarization.
- As Sam Kean explains, in response to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s request for a workable standard to determine whether gerrymandering occurred in a district, political scientists and lawmakers have developed a tool known as the “efficiency gap” standard. This standard takes into account “wasted votes,” which are defined as any vote beyond the necessary votes needed to elect a candidate (51 votes, for instance), or any vote for the losing candidate. The efficiency gap measures the difference in the wasted vote of each party, divided by the total number of votes. However, Kean argues that the efficiency gap has serious flaws, due to the fact that it creates false positives by not taking political geography into account. For instance, a state in which rural voters voted consistently Republican and urban voters voted consistently democratic would appear to have packed, and therefore gerrymandered, districts lines.
- Voters Not Politicians succeeded in mobilizing a grassroots campaign to collect signatures. Social media posts recruiting volunteers went viral, leading to an outpouring of support. Students may wish to discuss the value of leveraging technology and social media in current political campaigns—the differences between “slacktivism” and campaigns that have real impact on the ground. The group also held town halls to engage its supporters and received advice from the executive director of California Common Cause—pointing to the importance of collective action and resources that come from institutional support. Have students follow the trajectory of Proposal 2 in Michigan and discuss whether the campaign has ultimately led to success. Students may also be interested in watching the documentary, "Slay the Dragon" about the campaign against gerrymandering. This solutions story discusses both the Michigan effort and the documentary.
- Using the information and tables found here, students may wish to research more about the process of drawing legislative districts, either in their current state of residence, or where they grew up.