HomeLearning CenterDrawing the Line: How Gerrymandering Determines Whose Votes Have Power

Drawing the Line: How Gerrymandering Determines Whose Votes Have Power

Originally published by Kareem Crayton and Michya Cooper for Ms. Magazine

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.

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