Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Senior Editor

Prof. Michael Dorf, law, explains how redistricting and gerrymandering may affect the upcoming midterm elections.

September 25, 2022

Cornell Law Professor Discusses Redistricting and Gerrymandering

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This year’s midterm elections are expected to draw a lot of national attention as Republicans look to gain a few more seats to retake the House of Representatives, and Democrats attempt to defend them, in part by taking advantage of gerrymandered voting districts to foster an edge.

Prof. Michael Dorf, law, explained the effect of redistricting and gerrymandering

“The way people think the system should work is that when the population shifts, you redo all the district lines to balance populations,” Dorf said. “That way each district has an approximately equal number of people.” 

Redistricting is generally done every decade after the decennial census. In most states, the state legislatures are put in charge of redrawing districts and the party that controls a state frequently looks to redraw the district lines to maximize the size of their party’s control in congressional delegations. The manipulation of district boundaries to create anadvantage for a party is referred to as gerrymandering.

There are a number of tactics that the legislatures use when doing this. According to Dorf, tactics like  “cracking and packing” are often used by legislatures.

“You pack as many Democrats as you can into a small number of districts, and then where the Democrats have strength, you crack them and spread them out over various districts,” Dorf said when using an example of a hypothetical Republican legislature. 

In North Carolina, with a Republican state legislature and a population that’s politically evenly divided, both are utilized.

However, some states do not have to worry about balancing sides, so they try to eliminate all of one party’s representation. This is a situation that occurs in Kansas, where they try to eliminate all democratic representation (through cracking). This process recently affected Rep. Sharice Davids J.D.’10,  who has served as the U.S. representative from Kansas’ 3rd congressional district since 2019.

Davids was elected in 2018 and became the first Democrat elected to a Kansas congressional district in a decade. She is the first openly LGBT Native American elected to the U.S. Congress, the first openly lesbian person elected to the U.S. Congress from Kansas and one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress.

Earlier this year, her district lines were redrawn, and a common conclusion amongst experts was that the new district was competitive but had received an injection of Republican voters. 

According to the vote analysis site FiveThirtyEight, “The former district leaned Democratic by about four percentage points more than the national average, while the new district leans Republican by about three points.” 

However, Dorf noted that it is constitutional and that it has been accepted by the Supreme Court in previous cases.

“If this all sounds terribly undemocratic, it’s because it kind of is,” Dorf said. 

Dorf pointed out that Democrats have also engaged in this practice, but that they have been less aggressive and successful. Thus, Republicans have had more advantages in gerrymandering.

Dorf mentioned possible solutions to this issue. In his mind, the most important effort is to fix it in Congress. He cited H.R.1, a bill that would hopefully alleviate the problem by establishing independent redistricting commissions. In March 2021, the bill passed in the House. It has yet to pass in the Senate.

A second option could be seen in states who pursue non-partisan map drawing, according to Dorf. 

“Essentially, they delegated the task to technical experts with more neutral criteria who are supposedly going to make it a more sensible map,” Dorf said. 

According to Dorf, the problem with this is risking potential unilateral disarmament.

 “If California has a nonpartisan committee drawing its districts but then Texas and Florida have Republicans drawing their districts to maximize their voting strength, then California Democrats are going to feel like suckers,” Dorf said.

For this reason, Dorf saw action from Congress as the enabler of a main long-term solution.

In the meantime, Rep. Davids will have to make sure she keeps her seat this November. 

“The district that she is in is competitive, so she’s not guaranteed to lose that seat and if the national environment is favorable to Democrats, she definitely could win despite the redrawn district,” Dorf said.