“What are they doing?”


You’ve probably heard this phrase a lot lately—or uttered it to yourself out of sheer frustration—in reference to our elected officials. Increasingly, the actions of our Congress members have made us all wonder: who exactly are they making their decisions for? It’s apparent that our representatives and senators are not trying to help US—their constituents—but their corporate backers. And that’s a good place to start when we talk about gerrymandering.


Gerrymandering affects each and every one us, yet we rarely hear about it in the news. The end result of gerrymandering is being stuck in a district with an elected official who is working for his or her corporate backers…and definitely not for YOU.


What’s gerrymandering anyway?

The name “gerrymander” was coined in 1810, during the term of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. After a Massachusetts voting district was hastily redrawn, it looked like a salamander. Someone then combined the two words, and from there on out, the process was referred to as “gerrymandering.”


These days, based on the population of a voting district, congressional districts are sometimes redrawn to more accurately illustrate who lives in the area. People who are not living in a particular area should not have a say in who is elected as that district’s representatives in Congress—makes sense, right? But when congressional districts are currently redrawn, it’s not from a sense of fairness but to win an election. That’s when gerrymandering takes place. Some gerrymandering occurs based on political party. Some gerrymandering, however, is racist.


Court cases

When citizens are unfairly excluded from a district, they mostly get the feeling that their elected officials are not making decisions to help their lives. They’ve been excluded from the political process and this most certainly is illegal. These decisions are often fought in court. The court decision may be a long time coming, and the complexities of the cases can often mean that the general public loses interest, although gerrymandering is at the heart of the problem. Some cases are now funneling their way through the U.S. court system and reaching the Supreme Court. In early May, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, tore up two congressional district maps in North Carolina, holding that they amounted to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. “A state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines,” she wrote, referencing a 1993 court standard, “unless it has a compelling reason.”* The North Carolina voting map that was deemed racially discriminatory packed all African Americans into two districts and removed them from the other districts in the state, thus lessening the voting power of African Americans in the state. It was a purposeful redrawing of the map in a racist attempt to silence the voices of African American voters in that state.


Congressional districts in states are redrawn occasionally based on population or political party but to redraw them based on race is racially discriminatory and a violation of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution that was added after the Civil War—one of its prime intentions is to protect American citizens from discrimination.


From the Cornell Law School website:

“The Fourteenth Amendment addresses many aspects of citizenship and the rights of citizens. The most commonly used—and frequently litigated—phrase in the amendment is  “equal protection of the laws”, which figures prominently in a wide variety of landmark cases, including Brown v. Board of Education (racial discrimination), Roe v. Wade (reproductive rights),  Bush v. Gore (election recounts), Reed v. Reed (gender discrimination),  and University of California v. Bakke (racial quotas in education).”


You are entitled to equal protection under the law but this is not always apparent to the average voter.


What can I do about it?

Republicans who have used racial gerrymandering would like nothing more than to keep this off the front page. Efforts by Republicans to redistrict and “gerrymander” based on race are also occurring in Georgia and other states. Do what you can to make this an issue that is discussed more frequently.


(1) Educate yourself on gerrymandering.

(2) Mention it to those you know.

(3) Keep it front-and-center as a topic in the minds of your political friends

(4) Write to your local elected officials specifically about gerrymandering. You can even have a get-together of friends to write these letters. Tell your local government that this is an issue that is important and that you are paying attention and want them to voice an opinion on this issue publicly to take a stand against it.


There is urgency to this because once a district is gerrymandered, it may take a few years for a court challenge to right the wrong and fix it, but meanwhile another election has come and gone and the elected officials now sitting in those seats do not have your interests at heart. Put the pressure on your local elected officials to bring up the topic publicly when interviewed by news media. Ask them to talk about it publicly to give voice this legitimate problem. Gerrymandering’s pernicious effects are often “under the radar” and not high on the list of concerns with voters. Spread awareness about what it is and how racial gerrymandering can silence voices in communities. This cannot continue, and it won’t if you lend your voice!

Larry Sawyer bio:   Larry Sawyer is a poet and editor living in Chicago. He is the co-director of the Chicago School of Poetics and curates the Myopic Books Poetry Series.

*CNN, May 29, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/22/politics/north-carolina-gerrymander/

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