How Gerrymandering Drives Extremism

July 10, 2023


  • Gerrymandering suppresses the moderating influence of competitive elections
  • It empowers the most extreme elements of any political side
  • The vast majority of North Carolina’s legislative seats are non-competitive


Viewpoint from Charles DeLoach, J.D.

When you consider the negative impacts of gerrymandering, what comes to mind? Most people think about how it prevents one party or the other from having a fair shot at representation, or politicians are choosing their voters rather than voters choosing the politicians. But did you know it’s one of the leading causes of the increase in partisanship that we’ve all felt over the last few decades as well?

It’s not just tinpot dictators who try to insulate themselves from the will of the voters. Many politicians in the United States, and particularly in North Carolina, have also decided that what they do in office should not be subject to voter approval. Those politicians have worked to minimize voters’ power in a number of ways, but advances in technology have made rigging election maps through gerrymandering the most powerful tool they have to exercise power without accountability. 

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair or artificial advantage over its rival. By choosing who gets to vote for representatives to the North Carolina State House or the State Senate, politicians have been able to give themselves virtual guarantees that they, or someone in their party, would maintain control over positions of authority. 

Recently, I analyzed past elections for the NC State House and State Senate and found that no election cycle in the last 20 years saw more than 10% of the races be competitive. For these purposes, I define “competitive” as being decided by a 5% margin or less.

A shockingly low 7% of all General Assembly races over the last 20 years gave general election voters a real choice of representation.

To be sure, not every non-competitive election is a victim of gerrymandering. Many areas just naturally lean more conservative or liberal. But gerrymandering specifically has tilted the scales enough to strongly influence the balance of power in our state government.

But while many politicians have been eager to embrace gerrymandering to protect themselves from voters in the opposite party, they may have failed to consider a different threat: extremists within their own party.

In theory, independents and voters of opposing parties serve as a moderating force against political extremism. But when gerrymandering prevents voters from having a realistic chance to replace their political representation in general elections, it shifts the “real” contest to primary elections. Though North Carolina is one of a few states where independents can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary elections, that is a rare practice. Voters in primary elections tend to be much more extreme in their ideological views than not only the general population, but also average members of their own party. 

Let’s take a hypothetical example of a Republican office seeker running in a district gerrymandered to lean Republican in North Carolina. Overall support for abortion access may be 59% in our state (see the recent poll below), but the would-be Republican representative may not need to worry about that. Most Republican voters support at least some restrictions on abortion access, and many believe that abortion should be banned outright, with no exceptions (as the GOP candidate for Governor, Mark Robinson, has suggested). 

In this scenario, it doesn’t matter to the Republican candidate that a majority of North Carolinians want abortion to remain accessible, or even that most Republicans don’t want an outright abortion ban. The candidate won’t be able to win their primary if he (and occasionally she, though most Republican office seekers are men) doesn’t adopt the more extreme position on abortion. Now apply this incentive system across 90% of the districts for the General Assembly and you can see why our politics is becoming more extreme, and less reflective of what the majority wants. 

Elections are supposed to serve as a moderating force on our elected officials by forcing them to answer to the public for the decisions they make. Instead, gerrymandering facilitates a system in which politicians can ignore the public so long as they remain faithful to the more extreme elements of their party. So if you feel like gerrymandering benefits your party, I challenge you to consider whether having your party in control of government is worth having handing the most ideologically extreme members of it the keys to the kingdom.

Special thanks to Caroline James for helping analyze this data.

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