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It can establish a political advantage for a particular party, and it can also discriminate against certain classes of voters.
An electoral district map is intended to evenly divided electors (voters) into districts of approximately equal size (e.g. a state with 8 million citizens and one hundred (100) districts would ideally have 80,000 citizens in each district). This is important since equal representation is arguably an underpinning of the democratic process.
Redistricting, which is the redrawing of districts as populations grow and shift within a state or region, takes place every decade, and is based on the results of the US Census.
The method by which district maps are drawn varies from state to state, with some states using independent or bilateral commissions, some states working out of the governor’s office, and most states drawing maps designed behind closed doors under the supervision of ONLY the party in power.
The “who” of drawing district lines falls into several categories. Predictably enough, deeply red or blue states have usually given the task to the ruling party in their legislatures. Purple states are generally more likely to assign the process to a commission of some sort.
1. Perfect Representation
3 Blue Districts
2 Red Districts
2. Compact, but fair
5 Blue Districts
0 Red Districts
3. Neither compact nor fair
2 Blue Districts
3 Red Districts
Gerrymandering affects individual votes by making some count more than others. In a representative democracy like the U.S., in theory there should be equal representation according to voters’ preferences. In other words, if an area is 60% Democrat, then 60% of their representatives should be Democrats. Gerrymandering intentionally takes away fair representation, so that one party gains more representatives than they deserve.
Gerrymandering relies on the twin techniques of “packing” and “cracking.” Packing concentrates votes in a small number of districts, and cracking spreads the remaining out.
For example: let’s say Group A wants to minimize the representation of Group B, and maximize the representation of Group A. Group A packs as many voters from Group B into as few districts as possible. Then, Group A takes the remaining Group B voters and spreads them thinly through other districts, where they have no effect. By packing most Group B voters into a few districts, and cracking the rest over majority Group A districts, Group B ends up with fewer representatives than their numbers would dictate. The two techniques go hand-in-hand; and the more packing achieved, the more cracking achieved, as well.
Concentrating as many of the opposing party’s supporters into as few districts as possible.
Scattering the rest of the opposing party’s supporters into districts where they have no chance of winning.
The name “gerrymandering” comes from back in 1812 when the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, drew a serpentine district with appendages sticking out of it in an effort to consolidate opposition voters within that one district. Eventually, it was lampooned in the Boston Gazette as a monstrous creation, the Gerry-Mander (featured right).
Once the Pandora’s Box of gerrymandering was open, the techniques of manipulating district lines developed and grew and spread to all corners of the voting world. From Congressional districts to water boards, rearranging district lines have become more and more prevalent and refined. In New York City, Democratic leaders moved a boundary one block to put a city councilman’s home outside of his own district. The councilman was also a Democrat, but one who had fallen out of favor with local party leadership.
In South Africa, in 1948, gerrymandering was instrumental in allowing the pro-apartheid forces to take over and institute racism as part of a revised constitution.
But the greater problem has been that with the rise of sophisticated software as well as bad intent, whole states have been tailored to have Republican (or Democratic, in a few cases) “majorities” even as the state’s populace consists of a majority of members of the opposition party. In the 2010 elections, this worked so well that numerous blue states were turned red even as a majority of their electorates remained, and voted, Democratic. Since 2010 was a census year, this enabled Republican-controlled state legislatures to heavily tilt their states’ legislative districts and Congressional districts towards the GOP.
While gerrymandering is clearly unfair, for the most part it is not illegal. That may be changing as numerous cases in opposition to existing gerrymanders are currently proceeding through the courts. Some components of gerrymandering violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, and other components of gerrymandering violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is where most of the court cases focus their arguments.
The Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was not a matter of constitutional law, and therefore was not within the jurisdiction of the courts to decide. Public reaction to this generally questioned the Court’s avoidance of the case. There is a line of reasoning that which claims that failure to consider egalitarian needs and numerical fairness in elections is entirely within the purvue of constitutional law. Ultimately, additional laws regarding gerrymandering will face further tests in the courts.
Solutions for the problem of gerrymandering are numerous and vary by state and political leanings. Since 2019 and 2020 represent final opportunities to correct the imbalance in many state legislatures, the imperative to elect progressive Democrats in the states is clear.
Arriving at solid, long-term solutions for gerrymandering is a far more arcane second step – or steps. Here are some proposed methods for the improved drawing of districts.
An independent commission is in place in California to redraw districts and has so far avoided political interference.
Bipartisan commission has been adopted in a few states. The general impression is that it tends to put power, and therefore pressure, into the hands of one person: the “independent” (often retired) individual who has avoided party affiliation to date.
This is a favorite because it offers a relatively simple mathematical solution to a complicated problem. FairVote has a good example: “Imagine, for example, that we have a region in a state that is 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democratic and that it must be divided into two ten-member PR election districts. No matter how the district lines are drawn and no matter how party voters are distributed between the districts, each party will be able to elect its fair share of representatives.”
The efficiency gap solution is “deeply flawed,” according to several sources, in that it can detect a “false positive” of packing a district, when in actuality, the demographics of the district have changed.
This claims the ethical high ground of being outside of political influence, but no state has adopted it yet, and tests of algorithmic district mapping have generated frequently imbalanced results – a mathematical accident that looks and acts like… gerrymandering.
Compactness is a component of virtually all attempts to revise or eliminate gerrymanders, but it doesn’t stand by itself since factors such and demographics are also considerations.
These are gaining in popularity, in that they broaden the input of the individual voter, but they represent an extensive overhaul of the present system of electing legislative representation. While promising, they are far from being a “one stroke of the pen” solution to gerrymandering.
Another mathematical metric known as the “declination,” offers perhaps a better method of detecting gerrymandering, intentional or unintentional, but the key in all of these methods is to come as close as a polity can to ensuring fairness in creating districts.
What is clear is that more and more, mathematics and people who are experts in mathematics, will be involved in the legal challenges to, and the attempted replacement of, gerrymandering.
Mike Turzai was the Republican State House Majority Leader in Pennsylvania in 2011, and he presided over a breathtaking piece of legislative which remapped the state. Under his guidance, Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District was packed to create a heavily Democratic district, resulting in an odd shape that specifically excluded certain areas (packing). Cracking then left southeastern Pennsylvania with one solidly Democratic district, the 13th, and artificially created as many as three predictably Republican districts in a region which was majority Democratic.
Nearby the 13th Congressional District was the notorious 7th District. Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District was one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 2018. The district, an elaborate wreath of neighborhoods, gained national notoriety as one of the most obvious efforts to gerrymander. The district blatantly avoided the Democratic stronghold of Norristown, which was instead appended to the packed 13th District. The 7th District was so egregious that it earned a nickname, based on the cartoon characters it resembled: “Goofy Kicking Donald”
Beyond these two signature acts of gerrymandering, the net result of Mike Turzai and the GOP’s manipulations was a state which voted majority Democrat, but which sent thirteen Republicans to Congress and only five Democrats.
Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled, after three elections conducted under this travesty, that the 2011 district maps were illegally partisan, and when the state’s legislature could not agree on new district boundaries, the Court provided districts of its own. As a result, after the 2018 elections, Pennsylvania has nine Republicans and nine Democrats in the House of Representatives – and even, and more equitable, split.
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” Republican state representative Dave Lewis said in a statement read into the record in 2016.
North Carolina is a majority-Democrat state. But shrewd manipulation of state legislative and Congressional district boundaries have meant that Republicans control both the State Senate and House, and are nearly 300% over-represented in the US House of Representatives.
The North Carolina districts have become infamous as an egregious case of gerrymandering, and their constitutionality is currently being litigated. Most recently, a state court panel threw out the state legislative maps for being unconstitutional. But North Carolina’s gerrymandering is not being contested in the federal courts, it is being challenged in North Carolina’s state courts, which are outside of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court ruling of June 2019. The state court has ruled that North Carolina’s districts are illegally gerrymandered and must be redrawn.
The redistricting process is highly contentious and remains unresolved. But the overriding premise in North Carolina is that the court has spoken, and the legislature must comply.
Texas has 36 seats in the House of Representatives, so according to statewide voting patterns 19 of those seats should be filled by Republicans, and 17 of them should be occupied by Democrats. Instead, Texas is represented by 23 Republicans and only 13 Democrats.
After a decade of GOP gerrymandering, the voters of Michigan passed a ballot initiative in 2018 – Proposal 2, which took district mapping away from the state legislature and gave it to an independent commission.
The Republican-controlled state legislature sought to invalidate Proposal 2 in the courts, which ruled against the plaintiffs at every step of the way.
Ohio generally votes 52% Republican and 47% Democrat statewide, but the state’s legislative representation does not accurately match these percentages.
In 2011, the district maps were drawn solely by Republicans, assisted by Chris Jankowski’s team of Maptitude specialists in a secret hotel room in Columbus which was nicknamed “the bunker.” New Ohio districts enabled the Republicans to “pack” Democrats into four Congressional districts, and “crack” the other twelve districts in the state into Republican strongholds. Over the past decade, 75% of the Congressional representation of Ohio was Republican, even though Republicans only received between 51 and 57% of the statewide vote.
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Washington Post: Flipping Virginia blue can be done. But it won’t be easy.
Op-Ed from Co-founder and Executive Director Gaby Goldstein
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The Hill: The fight for a fair census is not over.
Op-Ed from Co-founder and Executive Director Gaby Goldstein
Why States Matter: Gerrymandering
A ‘fireside chat’ between Sister District Action Network Director of Research Gaby Goldstein and David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count
Five Thirty Eight
The Atlas of Redistricting
Fair Elections Project
How United States elected officials have legally rigged elections years before they even happen.
National Democratic Redistricting Committee
The political system is broken. The fight to fix it is now.