How Partisan Gerrymandering Prevents
Legislative Action on Gun Violence
By Alex Tausanovitch, Chelsea Parsons, and Rukmani Bhatia
|Getty/Universal Images Group/Education Images
People walk toward the Wisconsin state Capitol building in
Madison, October 2017.
Introduction and summary
Public support for commonsense gun laws in the United States has been steadily
increasing in recent years, due in large part to a seemingly ceaseless string of horrific
mass shootings, rates of gun-related homicide that are unmatched by those of other high-
income nations, and an epidemic of suicide by firearm.
Yet while some states have responded by implementing sensible gun safety measures,
too many states have taken no action at all. In these states, there remains a disconnect
between voters and the state legislators elected to represent them. One major
contributor to this disconnect is partisan gerrymandering—the process of drawing
districts to unfairly favor certain politicians or political parties. Partisan gerrymandering
is one of the reasons why a public that supports stronger gun laws can be represented
by state legislators who do nothing in the wake of severe episodes of gun violence.
Even when there is bipartisan support for a particular gun policy, conservative leaders
in many state legislatures persistently refuse to allow such bills to have a hearing or
come to a vote.
This report examines how the pernicious problem of partisan gerrymandering stymies efforts toward sensible reforms in several states—including North
Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia—despite strong public support for gun safety measures. These states provide some of the most
extreme examples of gerrymandering: Even though Democrats won a majority of the statewide votes, control of the state legislatures remained with
Republicans who, for the most part, have refused to allow meaningful debate on any commonsense gun safety measures. In each of these states, it is likely
that, in the absence of partisan gerrymandering, the legislature would have enacted measures to strengthen gun laws—measures that could have saved lives.
The report also puts forward a policy solution: States should require independent commissions to draw voter-determined districts based on statewide voter
preferences. Implementing this policy would end partisan gerrymandering and increase representation for communities that have too often been shut out of the
political system and also suffer the most from the lack of sensible gun safety legislation.
The American people recognize the need for sensible gun safety laws
Support for gun safety measures has been steadily increasing. A Gallup poll that has tracked U.S. public opinion on gun laws for decades reveals that only 43
percent of Americans in 2011 believed that laws governing the sale of guns should be made stricter, whereas that number had risen to 64 percent by October
2019. Support for specific gun policies is even higher: A September 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 88 percent of Americans support requiring
background checks for all gun sales; 71 percent support banning high-capacity ammunition magazines; and 69 percent support banning assault weapons.
This increased public support for stronger gun laws has led to legislative action in many states. An analysis by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun
Violence found that in the 17 months following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 32 states and Washington, D.
C., passed more than 110 gun safety bills.
Many of these new laws address significant gaps that leave communities vulnerable to gun violence. For example, to date, 21 states and Washington, D.C.,
have enacted laws to require background checks for all handgun sales, seeking to close a deadly gap in federal law that only requires background checks for
sales that occur at a licensed gun dealer. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have enacted extreme risk protection order (ERPO) laws, which create a
civil remedy allowing concerned family members or law enforcement to obtain a judicial order to temporarily remove guns from a person who demonstrates
that they pose a risk of harm to themselves or others. Many states have also strengthened laws to restrict domestic abusers’ access to firearms.
Universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders
Universal background checks would require any seller of firearms, whether federally licensed firearms dealers or private sellers, to conduct a background
check on prospective buyers before transferring a gun. Federal and state laws establish specific criteria that bar certain people from possessing or
purchasing firearms. Implementing universal background checks would make it more difficult for people prohibited from firearm possession to easily obtain
one, which would in turn help reduce gun violence and gun trafficking.
ERPOs are a civil legal remedy enabling family members or law enforcement officials to petition a judge for the temporary removal of firearms from a person
who presents an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others. ERPOs provide due process to the respondent while also providing a legal tool to intervene
when an individual exhibits signs that they are experiencing a temporary crisis and are a danger to themselves or others. Early research on the effect of this
policy finds that it has been effective at preventing suicides by firearm as well as disarming people who have threatened to commit mass shootings.
While significant progress has been made in recent years to strengthen gun laws at the state level, there has been little to no action in many states despite the
urgent need to enact sensible reforms. Part of the problem is partisan gerrymandering.
How partisan gerrymandering has undermined gun safety efforts
At least once every decade, politicians redraw the lines of their electoral districts. Districts need to be adjusted to account for changes in population so that
each representative still represents roughly the same number of people. However, politicians frequently take this opportunity to draw lines that benefit
themselves and hurt their opponents. They strategically spread out supporters of their own party to get a majority in as many districts as possible while
concentrating supporters of the opposing party in as few districts as possible. This is sometimes referred to as “cracking and packing.” If one party’s
supporters are packed into few enough districts, the other party can sometimes win a majority of districts even when they receive a minority of the votes.
Some states have adopted reforms to keep politicians out of the redistricting process, putting independent commissions in charge instead. In 2019, the U.S.
House of Representatives passed the For the People Act, which would require every state to use independent commissions in drawing federal districts.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to bring the legislation up for a vote. In the absence of legislative action, partisan map-
drawing is still the norm. Furthermore, advances in map-drawing software have made partisan operatives much more effective at drawing districts that skew
to their benefit.
Importantly, gerrymandering is not a one-party phenomenon. For example, when redrawing Maryland’s congressional districts in 2011, “[T]he Democratic Party
was as ruthless as their GOP counterparts in trying to redistrict their rivals out of existence.” However, during the 2010 redistricting cycle—at a time when
gerrymandering technology had recently become more advanced—Republicans controlled a significantly larger portion of state legislatures and therefore were
able to gerrymander more state districts in their favor. In the 2018 elections, Republicans won control of multiple legislative chambers in states where their
candidates received less than half of the major-party vote; Democrats did not win any state legislative chambers in this manner.
Not all gerrymanders are the sole result of one party working to gain an advantage over the opposing party. Some are bipartisan. In a divided government, for
example, leaders of both parties may have some say in the process and will generally try to create safe districts where incumbents are protected from
competition. Gerrymandering can even be unintentional. Since Democrats are often heavily concentrated in urban areas, drawing simple, compact districts is
likely to pack Democratic voters into a small number of urban districts, yielding results similar to a Republican gerrymander. Pennsylvania’s process for
drawing state legislative districts lends itself to both bipartisan and unintentional gerrymandering. The districts are drawn by a five-member commission, with
four members hand-picked by leaders of both parties, that must draw districts in accordance with a relatively strict compactness requirement. This practice
has produced a legislative map that is skewed in favor of Republicans.
The effects of partisan gerrymandering are significant. On average, from 2012 to 2016, gerrymandering resulted in 19 more Republicans being elected to
Congress than there would have been if representation reflected statewide vote totals. At the state level, gerrymandering has actually switched party control of
It is also important to note that the effects of partisan gerrymandering and the devastating toll of gun violence are not evenly shared. Young people and
communities of color comprise a disproportionate share of gun-related deaths. They are more likely to live in urban areas and vote for Democratic candidates
and are therefore disproportionately affected by gerrymandering that favors Republicans. For these communities, gerrymandering is not a theoretical concern;
it is a practice that actively diminishes their political voice and ability to protect themselves and their children from tragedy.
Wisconsin’s 2018 elections demonstrate how gerrymandering can compound other anti-democratic practices to shift political outcomes. Although
gerrymandering won Wisconsin Republicans a supermajority of seats in the House of Representatives—with Republicans gaining 63.6 percent of seats
despite Democrats winning 54.2 percent of the major-party votes—it may only have contributed to Republican control of the Wisconsin Senate. There,
Republican candidates won a narrow majority of the votes cast, with 51 percent of the major-party vote in the most recent elections for each seat, but won a
much larger majority of seats at 60.6 percent. Were it not for recent efforts to depress voter turnout, including the 2015 passage of a voter ID law that
disproportionately affected students and voters of color, Republican candidates might have fallen short of a majority of votes. Overall, as made clear in
Figure 1, Republican candidates received less than half of the total major-party votes for state House and Senate (48.4 percent) while receiving far more
than half of the total seats (62.9 percent)
In combination, gerrymandering and other anti-democratic practices may have artificially kept Republicans in control of the Wisconsin Legislature. This
represents a significant missed opportunity to advance gun policy. Wisconsin has been the site of horrific acts of gun violence, including the 2012 hate-
fueled attack at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek that killed six and the murder of Zina Daniel and four of her co-workers by her estranged husband at the spa
where she worked. Enacting an ERPO law and expanding background checks for gun sales are key priorities for advocates and voters in Wisconsin. An
August 2019 Marquette University Law School poll found that 80 percent of Wisconsin voters support both measures.
Bills to enact both policies were introduced in the Senate and Assembly in fall 2019.75 After the Legislature failed to hold hearings or a committee vote on
either, Gov. Tony Evers (D) announced that he would call it into a special session on November 7, 2019, to take action on these bills. Republican leadership
in both houses of the state Legislature accused the governor of “playing politics” and ended the special session less than one minute after it began, without
holding debate on the two bills or any other proposal to address gun violence in the state. Rather than allowing debate, state Senate Majority Leader Scott
Fitzgerald (R) adjourned the session and asserted, “I don’t think these bills solve the issue of gun violence, there are many other things that play into that,
including mental illness.”
The prevalence of gerrymandering nationwide
Although Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin are extreme examples of gerrymandering, they are indicative of a much wider problem.
Since the 2010 round of redistricting, there have been at least 36 instances in which a party won a majority of the seats in a state chamber while winning a
minority of the major-party votes.
Gerrymandering matters, and not only when it affects control of a legislative chamber. Each additional conservative or progressive legislator pulls policy
outcomes in a more conservative or progressive direction. Recent research has shown that even the shift of a single legislator has a measurable effect on
policy outcomes. Since 2010, there have been at least 96 instances in which a party won at least 10 percent more seats in a chamber than the percentage of
overall votes that its candidates running for that chamber received. That is terrible news if one believes that legislatures should reflect the views of the
The good news is that there have been some positive developments in the states listed above. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court found that the
congressional districts were so gerrymandered that they violated the state constitution. A state court in North Carolina held that the state’s legislative
districts were unconstitutional under the state constitution,83 though how that decision will apply to future districts is not entirely clear. In Michigan, voters
passed a ballot initiative in November 2018 that will require future redistricting to be put in the hands of an independent commission, rather than those of
incumbent politicians. Although the majority leadership in the Wisconsin Legislature is still firmly opposed to redistricting reform, there is a growing
grassroots movement in the state, with 48 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties having passed measures in support of fair maps.
However, most states still lack meaningful safeguards to prevent partisan gerrymandering. Where safeguards do exist, they often fail to fully ensure that
voters will be accurately represented in the legislature.
How to end gerrymandering and ensure fair representation
Gerrymandering is a solvable problem, and the solution is relatively simple: Do not let politicians draw their own districts and require districts to represent
the views of the public as accurately as possible.
The first step is to require independent commissions to draw the districts, free from the influence of political officeholders. Whenever politicians are
involved in the redistricting process, they have a strong incentive to distort that process to their advantage. The easiest way to remove that temptation is to
take redistricting entirely out of their hands and instead give that power to a nonpartisan entity without a vested interest in particular districts.
It is not enough to simply put district-drawing in the hands of an independent commission, however. For one thing, independence is difficult to ensure; there
is always the possibility that political agendas will creep into the process. More importantly, even a well-intentioned commission can sometimes skew
districts unintentionally. Democratic and Republican voters are not evenly distributed. Drawing simple, compact districts, for example, is likely to
unintentionally “pack” progressive voters who are more commonly concentrated in urban areas.
The way to ensure fair districts is to require fair districts. That is why the second step to solve gerrymandering is to establish redistricting criteria that create
voter-determined districts. The goal is simple: Voters should be able to determine how districts are drawn on the basis of their votes. For example, if 55
percent of voters support a particular party, that party should receive as close as possible to 55 percent of the seats. When districts are fair, more votes
generally means more seats.
Voter-determined districts should also be drawn to address other inequities in the current system. Communities of color have been underrepresented
throughout American history and continue to be severely underrepresented in state legislatures. This underrepresentation is a result of gerrymandering,
voter suppression, and a long history of deliberate efforts to prevent communities of color from participating in the political process. Districts should be
drawn to ensure fair representation for communities of color. Moreover, they should be drawn to ensure an adequate level of competition so that changes in
voter preferences result in changes in the legislature.
Gerrymandering frustrates the will of the people. Fixing gerrymandering would clear the way for state legislatures to enact policies with broad public
support, including laws that would help reduce gun violence. In a nation where the vast majority of voters support strengthening gun laws, one should
expect stronger regulation of guns and more resources dedicated to ensuring public health and safety. But in the states described above, democracy is not
working in the way that it should. The political party that holds power did not receive the majority of public support, and this electoral disconnect has
significant legislative consequences. In these states, and across the country, every new tragic episode of gun violence is a reminder that more must be
done to protect communities and remove the obstacle of partisan gerrymandering.
About the authors
Alex Tausanovitch is the director of Campaign Finance and Electoral Reform at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining the Center, he worked at
the U.S. Department of Education and at the Federal Election Commission, where he advised commissioners on matters related to campaign finance law. His
published work focuses on redistricting, lobbying, campaign finance, and other topics related to the health of democratic institutions. He holds a J.D. from
Yale Law School and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from American University.
Chelsea Parsons is the vice president of Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress. Her work focuses on advocating for progressive
laws and policies relating to gun violence prevention and the criminal justice system at the federal, state, and local levels. In this role, she has helped
develop measures to strengthen gun laws and reduce gun violence that have been included in federal and state legislation and executive actions. Prior to
joining the Center, Parsons was general counsel to the New York City criminal justice coordinator, a role in which she helped develop and implement
criminal justice initiatives and legislation in areas including human trafficking, sexual assault, family violence, firearms, identity theft, indigent defense, and
justice system improvements. She previously served as an assistant New York state attorney general and a staff attorney clerk for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court
Rukmani Bhatia is the policy analyst for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining the Center, she served the Obama
administration in the U.S. Agency for International Development. Bhatia previously served as the inaugural Hillary R. Clinton research fellow at the
Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She holds a master’s degree from Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a
bachelor’s degree with honors from Wellesley College.