What Gerrymandering Means For Social Conservatives' Agenda

12/20/2016 09:14 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2017

Efforts in recent years to gerrymander state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives have begun to improve prospects for the legislative agenda of church-based socially conservative voters. Gerrymandering, which can be defined as the practice of drawing legislative district boundaries so as to advantage one of the two major parties, has been around for a long time in American history. Before the mid-1960s, gerrymandering was much easier to accomplish, because equal-population legislative districts weren't understood to be required by the U.S. Constitution. For a long time that meant was enhanced voting power for primarily rural and small town areas (in the North especially) when compared with major metropolitan ones. Thinly populated rural areas tend to be more morally traditional (and Republican) than densely populated urban ones, which gave socially conservative voters associated with the GOP an advantage in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, one that lasted for many years. That situation changed in the 1960s due to such landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions as Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which found that the Constitution required equal-population districts for all state legislative bodies and for the U.S. House of Representatives.

For a while after those rulings, many assumed that the equal-population requirement meant that gerrymandering of the kind that had gone on before had been dealt a fatal blow. But in recent decades, new computer technology has made a new form of gerrymandering possible: equal-population districts that are carved out in ways that still give one party a distinct advantage. Exotically shaped districts designed by sophisticated computer software have emerged that put enough of the voters in one party in a district so as to maximize the chances that it would become a safe seat for the candidates of that party, year after year. The voting strength of the other side has been diluted by packing its supporters into as few districts as possible, and by scattering the rest among districts that lean the other way. It should be emphasized that both the Democrats and Republicans have done these sorts of things, with California a leading example of Democratic Party gerrymandering and Ohio a leading example of Republican Party gerrymandering. On balance, the new gerrymandering has benefited the Republicans more, and that is helping propel social conservatives' legislative agenda forward.

Ohio is a case in point. In the last few weeks there, the state legislature has passed two new anti-abortion bills backed by church-based social conservatives. The first prohibited all abortions after a pregnancy reached twenty weeks. No exceptions were made in cases of rape and incest; the only exception had to do with an abortion necessary to save the life of the mother. The second bill, even more restrictive, purported to outlaw abortion once a fetal heartbeat could be detected, roughly six weeks into a pregnancy. The governor of Ohio, socially conservative Republican John Kasich, signed the first measure into law and vetoed the second. Kasich has compiled a strongly pro-life voting record, having signed into law 18 bills aimed at restricting abortion. He explained his veto of the "heartbeat bill" (as it became popularly known) on tactical grounds, noting that the current Supreme Court has held such laws to be unconstitutional and so that signing such a bill into law now would be pointless.

Ohio is no Mississippi or Utah in terms of its overall political identity. The Buckeye State has a moderate political culture, something reflected in its bellwether role in American presidential elections. Ohio is a purple state, but with respect to issues social conservatives care about deeply, its legislature now behaves like a red-state one. The key reason for that shift has been gerrymandering, which has enhanced the power of morally traditional and strongly Republican small towns and rural areas. The Republicans now have very wide margins in both houses of the Ohio General Assembly, so wide that more socially moderate members of the GOP can no longer restrain much the more strongly (social) conservative wing of the party there. That has had implications not just for abortion, but also for gun rights (expanded protections for concealed carry have also recently passed there) in a state were 55% of the population lives in major metro areas of over one million people. Still unclear is how far this trend can go before voters who live in the more urban and suburban parts of Ohio rebel. And related to that is the question of how far gerrymandering can go before it triggers some kind of judicial reaction, at either the state or U.S. Supreme Court level. Unless and until that happens, the likelihood is that church-based social conservatives will continue to make steady, incremental gains in promoting their agenda, in Ohio and in many other states across the nation.

The same pattern may now begin to play out at the federal level as well. The U.S. House of Representatives, many of whose members come from gerrymandered districts, seems poised to join this trend. Encouraged by the election of Donald Trump, social conservatives in the House are preparing to vote to defund Planned Parenthood, and may well tackle other issues related to abortion and gun rights, among other things. Whether the Senate will offer much of an obstacle to the social conservatives' agenda is not yet certain. The power of low-population states, most of them predominantly rural and small town in nature, is enhanced in the U.S. Senate because each state gets two senators regardless of overall state population. As with the shift in many of the states, the question is how far the related trends of gerrymandering and socially conservative legislative progress can go at the federal level before they prompt some sort of backlash from major metropolitan areas of the country, where a clear majority of voters now live.