Gerrymandering and restricting voting rights: Flip sides of the same coin
Two threats to our democracy that draw widespread attention are gerrymandering and restricting voting rights. Though rarely discussed together, they represent the flip sides of the same democracy-threatening coin.
Voting rights ensure that every person eligible to vote can access ballots and express their constitutional right to have their vote counted. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing political district maps to give one party an advantage in gaining elected representation.
Both gerrymandering and restricting voting rights threaten our nation’s democracy as they restrict voters from having a say in their representation. Both are political lightning rods of controversy, affecting local, state and federal elections.
Voter fraud occurs when people not eligible to vote can cast a ballot. The U.S. Constitution defines who is eligible to vote. For example, you must be a U.S. citizen over 18 years of age to vote and each person can only vote once in a given election. Republicans often cite this issue when election precincts do not require people to provide legitimate forms of identification to affirm who they are and that they are eligible to vote. The voting fraud umbrella also includes concern with voting by mail and ballot drop boxes for such ballots. This was a common criticism during the 2020 election, with then-President Trump claiming widespread voter fraud, though no evidence has been uncovered to support such claims.
Voter suppression occurs when people who are legitimately eligible to vote are discouraged or prevented from casting their ballot. Democrats often cite this issue when eligible people are kept from casting their vote due to eligibility verification issues, such as not being appropriately registered or not having appropriate identification.
Voter fraud means ineligible votes get counted, while voter suppression prevents eligible votes from being counted. Given that not all eligible voters choose to vote in elections, elections are a poll for the true population preference for candidates. Any manipulation of the votes counted distorts the results of the poll such that they may not align with the true population preference.
Yet, this is exactly what gerrymandering accomplishes, though it does so in a different manner.
Gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters rather than allowing voters to elect their representatives. The standard tools of gerrymandering, packing and cracking, facilitate preordained outcomes in elections, effectively diluting the value of votes in elections, much like what voter fraud accomplishes.
Packing large sets of voters with common political leanings together, giving them an excessively large majority in a small number of districts, effectively dilutes the impact of their votes across other districts, making many such votes wasted. This is akin to preventing legitimate voters from influencing the outcome of elections, in much the same way as voter suppression. Ironically, majority–minority districts, those designed with one or more racial minority voters to ensure their representation, are a legal form of packing, with over one-quarter of congressional districts classified as such.
Cracking takes voters with common political leanings and dilutes their influence by spreading them across multiple districts, which effectively suppresses their ability to elect representation. This is akin to preventing these voters from influencing the outcome of elections, in much the same way as voter suppression.
Gerrymandering and restricting voting rights are both contributing to dysfunctional governments at the local, state, and federal levels. When members of both parties cannot even agree on who should vote, how to validate voter eligibility, and how districts should be mapped to empower voters, this leaves a wide schism between the same politicians who must work together on the real problems that they are elected to address.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the director of the Institute for Computational Redistricting at the University of Illinois, committed to bringing transparency to the redistricting process using optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence.