Gerrymandering: What is it and how does it hurt voters?

ByRobert Kinlaw WTVD logo
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
What is gerrymandering
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What is gerrymandering?

RALEIGH, North Carolina (WTVD) -- Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that North Carolina unfairly discriminated against black voters when it drew its voting districts.

Previously, the lower court had told the state it would have to redraw the lines and hold a special 2017 election as reparation for the gerrymandering.

The new decision negates that bit, although the state may still have to redistrict before 2018's state elections.

But what exactly is gerrymandering, and how did it land North Carolina in hot water?

Gerrymandered districts are drawn so that they do not accurately represent the constituency.

The goal is to slice up voters in a way that tips the scales in favor of one political party during elections.

That often means grouping the people into districts based on attributes like race and class.


In 2016, federal judges found that 28 House and Senate districts were purposefully drawn to group black communities together, diluting their overall voting power by focusing more on the same districts.


An important part of the redistricting process is who holds the pencil.

In North Carolina, it's the party in control of the state legislature, which means the Republican Party.

But black voters have traditionally been more likely to support the Democratic Party.

That's one reason the Supreme Court intervened: the lines seemed to be drawn with the intention of keeping the Republicans in power by lessening the voting power of a group that may upset their legislative dominance.

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Thomas Carsey, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the redistricting process could be improved if it were done by a nonpartisan commission.

"Such a commission could be given the directive to produce districts that are relatively compact and reasonably shaped," Carsey said.

That could mean recognizing existing boundaries like city or county lines during the process.

"That would be more likely to foster competitive elections rather than districts dominated by one party," he said.

Carsey also said that new technologies could be used to increase the odds that the districts correctly represent the electorate.

"Numerous advances in computer algorithms, mapping programs, and the availability of data would permit such commissions to forecast the likelihood that a particular district map would accurately translate voter preferences into seats," he said.

Although this ruling pertains to state House and Senate elections, North Carolina has also received scrutiny from the Supreme Court for the voting districts it uses in national elections.

In that case, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her opinion for the majority of the court that race cannot be the predominant factor in drawing district lines.

The Voting Rights Act also requires race to be considered during the process.

That conflict was at the heart of the Supreme Court case.

Of the 13 state seats in the House of Representatives, 10 belong to Republicans while Democrats account for three.

That balance could be more likely to shift during the next election if district lines are redrawn.

For a hands-on look at how gerrymandering works, try out the Redistricting Game.