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How Gerrymandering stifles potential voters and candidates as well as skews policy


The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, signed new congressional and state legislative districts into law on Monday. And there is already a lawsuit challenging the district maps, claiming they've been gerrymandered. Here's Bret Jaspers of KERA.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: At the very ground level, partisan redistricting - or gerrymandering - affects the behavior of voters. How? Well, when a district is drawn to substantially favor one party, there isn't necessarily a robust campaign. Eric Lopez is a political science professor at UT Tyler.

ERIC LOPEZ: Political parties don't have infinite resources. So where are they going to spend resources? - in the areas or elections that they believe it to be competitive.

JASPERS: People who live in a gerrymandered district are far less likely to see candidate flyers or commercials. And when no one's out there trying to earn your vote, Lopez says, you might not see anything worth voting for. Or if your party seems destined to win, why show up?

LOPEZ: You start to understand why in congressional elections, turnout always tails off, because you have less and less competitiveness, right?

JASPERS: Next, the candidates. Ed Espinoza of the progressive media group Progress Texas says partisan redistricting can discourage good ones from running for office.

ED ESPINOZA: If you are a Democrat who lives in an area that has been drawn into a conservative district, it doesn't matter how liberal your community is. Your odds of winning to represent your area aren't very good.

JASPERS: This can happen to a conservative drawn into a liberal district, too. If the numbers are significantly stacked against you, why bother? Gerrymandering doesn't only stifle potential voters and potential candidates; it also skews policy. Without competitive district races, legislators face little electoral blowback when laws they pass don't reflect the state as a whole. Bob Stein is a professor at Rice University.

BOB STEIN: The Republicans have clearly shown that they've been able to control that and use it to adopt legislation that, in some instances, a majority of Texans don't support.

JASPERS: Stein says an example is the recently enacted law practically ending abortion in Texas. A February poll from UT Austin and the Texas Tribune showed only 13% of Texans think abortions should never be permitted.

STEIN: Winning elections for Republicans, it's about passing these legislative agendas.

JASPERS: Ultimately, UT Tyler's Eric Lopez says gerrymandering helps parties get what they want even if it makes our system of government less representative as a whole.

LOPEZ: At the end of the day, political parties care about themselves and political power. I mean, that's what politics is, right? It's a fight over who yields governmental power.

JASPERS: And a big part of that in Texas and elsewhere is politicians drawing their own maps and choosing their voters.

For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in Dallas.


Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.