Commentary: Partisan gerrymandering must end

November 22, 2021 5:00 am

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 26: Protesters attends a rally for “Fair Maps” on March 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. The rally was part of the Supreme Court hearings in landmark redistricting cases out of North Carolina and Maryland (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

In all that seems to divide us today, there are still a few core values Americans share across the political spectrum. Among those are democracy and fairness.

 We believe strongly that the collective will of equal citizens should be reflected in public decisions, without unfair privileges or disadvantages. Whether our preferred candidate wins or loses, we want our vote to matter and we want assurances that the system isn’t rigged in favor of one side or another. Just as in sports and board games, when the rules advantage one team or player above others, we know something is wrong with the game.

When it comes to American elections, something is wrong with the game.

Across the country, electoral districts from the congressional to the state to the local level are being redrawn. This redistricting process typically occurs once every ten years to ensure that each district continues to represent an equal number of people. It is meant to maintain fairness in our electoral system. 

Yet in numerous areas across the country, many maps are currently being drawn that almost guarantee which party will win – all before any votes have been cast and even before many candidates have declared their intentions to run for office. It is a process known as gerrymandering: drawing district boundaries to favor a particular outcome.

This is not just a problem for Democrats or Republicans (both parties have engaged in this tactic, though in different places). This is a problem for all American citizens. Regardless of our political leanings, most of us want – and we all deserve – our vote to contribute meaningfully to the outcome. Yet when our districts are gerrymandered, it is rare that our vote does meaningfully contribute, whether we vote for the favored or disadvantaged party.

Gerrymandering isn’t used just in battleground states. Tennessee is red-tilting state, but based on voting patterns, Republicans should hold 64% of the seats in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Instead, the GOP holds 74%, or about nine seats more than one would expect. 

Here is a bird’s eye view to illustrate the point: states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina are particularly purple states. The last few election cycles have seen close outcomes in presidential and governor’s races and close or alternating outcomes in US senate races. Yet almost two-thirds of the Congressional seats in North Carolina and Wisconsin and three-quarters in Ohio are held by Republicans. Similarly lopsided outcomes are seen in their state houses. These are signs of highly gerrymandered maps, maps that do not reflect the true will of voters.

And this problem persists even in states not considered to be battlegrounds. There is no doubt that Tennessee tilts red. Approximately 60% of Tennessee’s vote went to the Republican candidate in the last three presidential elections, as well as the last governor’s race. Our current U.S. Senators, both Republicans,  won with 55% and 62% in the last two elections.

We see similar statewide results for Congress and the Tennessee General Assembly, though with vastly unbalanced outcomes:

  • In each Congressional election of the last decade, 59-62% of the overall vote has gone to Republican candidates. Since Tennessee has nine seats in Congress, one might expect from this rate that either five or six of seats would be held by Republicans; in reality, it has consistently been seven.
  • In the state House for the last two elections, roughly 64% of the overall vote has gone to Republican candidates. Yet Republicans hold 74% of the House seats. That’s about nine seats more than one would expect based on aggregate voter preferences.
  • On the Senate side, Republican candidates have won 53-69% of the vote in competitive races over the last decade, yet currently hold over 80% of the seats. That’s a misalignment of five to seven out of 33 seats. Since only half of the senate seats are on the ballot each cycle, we could think of it this way: if the vote distribution by party from the 2018 and 2020 elections were properly reflected in outcomes, the current ratio of 4.5 Republicans to every Democrat would be closer to 2:1 or even 1.5:1.

In short, Tennessee’s electoral map currently advantages Republicans far in excess of what voters on the whole want. A fair map would still provide a Republican majority, in alignment with the collective will of the voters, but not this lopsided super majority we have currently.

The General Assembly is in the process of redrawing electoral maps, a process likely to be finalized in January. We are about to have the once-a-decade opportunity either to guarantee truly fair elections or to rig the system to advantage one side over another. I would hope that most of my fellow citizens – regardless of party preference – would prefer the former and would call the latter what it is: unfair and un-American. Our legislators need to know that we want a fair vote with fair outcomes. We deserve electoral maps free of partisan—or any form of—gerrymandering.

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Shawn Trivette, Ph.D.
Shawn Trivette, Ph.D.

Dr. Shawn Trivette has been a Tennessean most of his life, growing up outside of Knoxville, attending college in Cookeville, and now residing in the Chattanooga area. He earned his PhD in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst in 2012 and has previously held faculty appointments in Louisiana and at UTC. He currently works remotely as a data scientist for a non-profit based in Washington, DC. In his spare time, he has been analyzing Tennessee voting patterns from 2008-2020; more on this project can be found at