The Consequences of Gerrymandering on the Student Vote

This summer the United States Supreme Court will rule on two major cases regarding the constitutionality of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, or politicians’ practice of manipulating district boundaries to favor one party or class, has taken on a new, more advanced form in today’s political climate. First, the level of sophistication in mapping technology has advanced significantly. That, coupled with the availability of highly detailed voter data, has given mapmakers the ability to predict a given citizen’s voting pattern based on their home address. This newfound capability allows politicians to draw the boundaries of legislative districts, at all levels of government, in ways which all but ensure victory for their own political party.

For example, in North Carolina, despite only winning roughly 50% of the popular vote, Congressional Republicans still won the majority of all seats available during the 2018 Midterms by an extreme 10-3 margin. And in Maryland, Democrats have a 7-1 advantage, which some argue is a direct result of that party being in control of drawing the district’s maps. Ultimately, both political parties take part in gerrymandering, and it comes at the direct expense of the voters.

Student at Montclair State University’s party at the polls

This tactic can be exercised in a number of different ways, one of which results in dense areas of voters being broken into multiple districts in order to dilute their collective vote. This form of gerrymandering is most commonly carried out in cities and college campuses and directly impacts the work of The Andrew Goodman Foundation to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. For example, in New Jersey, Montclair State University lies within three different congressional districts. In Louisiana, Louisiana State University is broken into two different congressional districts.

In turn, the interests of those universities’ 21,000 and 31,000 students, respectively, who are a community of shared interests—they are all roughly the same age, all furthering their education, all attend the same institution, all live in the same area and access the same public utilities—now have their votes spread apart and drowned out by their neighbors.

While rigged legislative districts’ lines can serve to break up a campus and dilute its students’ votes, they can also serve to confuse voters by breaking up a single college campus into multiple voting districts. In this regard, although students may live on the same campus and be represented by the same local official, they nonetheless may still be required to go to different polling sites to vote. In practice, this confuses young, first-time voters who may not realize that, because they switched residence halls, they simultaneously switched their polling places.

Some examples of this are worse than others. For instance, the city of Ithaca’s common council has divided the city’s voting wards in such a way that it directly breaks up the University of Cornell’s campus into three distinct election wards. Students who live on campus have three different designated polling locations, all based on where they live. Beyond this, what’s most shocking, is that the University has a polling place located on its very own campus; however, no students are allowed to vote there. This is because the specific dormitory in which the polling place is situated, ironically, belongs to an entirely different voting district. Further, because these campuses are split up, some students may have a close, convenient polling place while others have to travel unusually long distances to vote at their designated sites. Some students at Cornell have to vote at a location which is nearly three miles away. Others have to vote at a location which is only one mile away; however, it is not directly accessible via public transportation.

Students at Cornell University register to vote

If the goal is to have a well-informed, well-engaged population, then voting must be made as easy and practical as possible. Confusing voters with complicated voting district boundaries, or, breaking up voters in similarly situated communities into multiple districts, thus diluting their votes, is counterintuitive to this end. This is why the two gerrymandering cases to be heard before the Supreme Court this summer are of the utmost importance and will have real-life implications on the work of The Andrew Goodman Foundation and other organizations working to expand voting rights—especially for students—in our country.

About the Author

Ryan Spain is the David Rudenstine Postgraduate Public Service Legal Fellow with the Andrew Goodman Foundation. Ryan received his law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He also received his Master’s Degree from New York University and earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Rhode Island.