How Gerrymandering Is Making the Coronavirus Crisis Worse | Opinion

We have an ongoing public health and economic crisis. To date, more than 130,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and tens of millions are out of work, meaning that people are losing their health care coverage when they need it most. One of the overlooked culprits that has magnified the impact of these crises: partisan gerrymandering.

In May, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 26.8 million Americans would lose their health insurance due to recent job losses, and that, by next January, 1.9 million of those Americans will lack health insurance because they live in a state that has failed to expand Medicaid. The Urban Institute estimates that 40 percent of the people in those states who lose their employer-based health insurance will be uninsured. All of these estimates assume that unemployment does not continue to climb.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states are allowed to expand their Medicaid programs to provide coverage to more people, with the 90 percent of the costs of expansion borne by the federal government. It seems like a no-brainer—74 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Medicaid, and states bear little of the cost of expansion.

And yet 13 states have rejected this bargain, with a number of others attempting to restrict expanded access. Some of these are deep-red states where politicians are allowing an extreme, anti-government ideology to take precedence over the health of their citizens. But others are states where Republicans received fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, who would gladly expand Medicaid. So what is the holdup?

The answer is partisan gerrymandering. Republican politicians in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin are drawing the lines of their districts in ways that ensure that they get a majority of the seats in the legislature, even when they get a minority of the votes. They do it by concentrating voters for the opposing party in a small number of districts, and then spreading out the rest of these voters so that Republican voters are the majority in a larger number of districts.

Look at North Carolina. In 2018, Democratic candidates received 51.2 percent of the vote for state House and 50.5 percent of the vote for state Senate. But Republicans still won a majority of the actual seats—54.2 percent of the seats in the House and 57.9 percent of the seats in the Senate. And with these undemocratic majorities, Republicans have been able to block the Democratic governor from expanding Medicaid—preventing an estimated 365,000 North Carolinians from having health insurance.

Similarly, in states like Georgia, Republican gerrymandering has turned small Republican majorities into large ones. That matters, because more evenly split legislatures are more likely to reach bipartisan compromises like expanding Medicaid. As of 2018, every state in which Democrats held more than 42 percent of the seats in both houses of the legislature has expanded Medicaid. The Georgia legislature would have been 46.5 percent Democratic if the Democratic candidates had won seats in proportion to the votes they received. But because of gerrymandering, Democrats won only 42.1 percent of the seats in the House and 37.5 percent of the seats in the Senate.

North Carolina Primary Election
A potential voters arrives to cast a ballot at a polling station during the primary in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 3, 2020. Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty

Gerrymandering allows politicians to ignore the will of the people. In the case of Medicaid, the cost is extremely high. In Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia, a recent report from the Center for American Progress estimated that 3,000 fewer deaths would have occurred in 2019 if these states had fully implemented Medicaid.

Fortunately, gerrymandering is a solvable problem—as long as there is a will to solve it. We need to take the power to draw districts out of the hands of politicians and establish independent redistricting commissions. Several states have already done so, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed the historic For the People Act (H.R. 1) that would require the same for federal districts nationwide. We need to make sure districts throughout the country accurately represent the people of the state—and provide representation for communities of color, which have been systematically disenfranchised for too long.

Ending gerrymandering will mean a government that is more responsive to the people. And when it comes to issues like Medicaid expansion, that can literally mean the difference between life and death—especially during a global pandemic.

Ady Barkan is the co-founder of the Be A Hero PAC and an organizer at the Center for Popular Democracy. Sam Berger is vice president for democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.