A threat to democracy: no, not the Russians, gerrymandering

Many have protested gerrymandering in their states, arguing that the practice is undemocratic and advocating for a change in the way district lines are drawn. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, a group of Democratic voters, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Democratic lawmakers and a group of Republican activists submitted new proposed congressional districts for Pennsylvania to The Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court said the previous plan, submitted by the state’s Republican-majority legislature, “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state’s constitution on the grounds it unfairly favored partisan interests, ensuring future Republican control in a state usually nearly equal in registered Democratic and Republican voters. Republican lawmakers filed an emergency application to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to thwart the state’s ruling, but the court upheld the decision 5-2. 

While the district lines in Pennsylvania, holding for the past six years, are often regarded as the most gerrymandered boundaries in the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court has also been asked to rule on gerrymandering cases from Maryland, Wisconsin, and Texas.

The outcome of the redrawn districts in Pennsylvania and the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in other gerrymandering cases is sure to be felt on a national level. Considering this, it is important to know the context and history of this controversial practice known as gerrymandering. 

It’s a big word and an even bigger issue. For those who don’t quite understand what it is or how it works, here is a crash course on an increasingly relevant and worrisome topic.

What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is a broad term that encompasses a range of redistricting abuses. Gerrymandering is the act of manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district. Often this manipulation is intended to give one political party more election districts and therefore more votes. Gerrymandering has also been used to improve or diminish the representation of particular groups, such as the elderly, the poor and minority voters.

Gerrymandering is possible because representation for each state in the House of Representatives is dependent upon its population, which is based on the U.S. Census. After a census is taken, each state must be divided into districts to allow one district for each representative. State legislatures draw district boundaries in the majority of states. This affects how many delegates, and the ideology of those delegates, a state sends to Congress.

The graph above is an example of how district lines can create multiple election outcomes with the same voters. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 Why is it dangerous?

Gerrymandering includes the misuse of redistricting for protecting incumbents, targeting political opponents and manipulating boundaries of districts to gain political advantage.

As technology advances, those with current political power have access to more detailed data that can aid in gerrymandering. Gerrymandering can harm fair voter representation, regardless of partisanship, and therefore poses a threat to democracy. Thomas Smith, associate professor of political science and director of the Honors Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, gave his insight via email to Connect.

“I’ve always thought it’s one of the least democratic facets of the American political system,” Smith wrote. “It’s not that voting districts are always blatantly designed to produce a particular outcome, but it still happens in subtler ways. For example, as the demographics of Congressional districts change, they are often slightly redrawn to protect incumbents.”

Those looking to unfairly draw districts are aided by technological advances as they have increased access to information about the voting habits of a certain population. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Facts and Stats

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law analyzed the 2012-2016 congressional elections and made a report on its findings. The report states that “This decade’s congressional maps are consistently biased in favor of Republicans,” and, “Just seven states account for almost all of the bias.” According to the report, these states are Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.

“In the case of US congressional districts,” Smith wrote, “One of the effects is that there are very few districts that are actually competitive. Fortunately, Pinellas County is one of the few that is. The existence of these ‘safe,’ for the incumbent, districts . . . fuels partisan ideologues in Congress. Most representatives in Congress are far more ideological, both on the right and the left than their constituents.”

Where does the name come from?

The term gerrymandering comes from the fifth American vice president Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was governor of Massachusetts in 1810 and 1811 and had a part in the first redistricting that was considered to manipulative. One of the new districts was said to resemble a salamander, and the term “gerrymander” was coined as a combination of Gerry’s name and the infamous new boundary lines.


Is there a solution?

Various people and organizations have proposed solutions to the problem of gerrymandering. Among those suggestions is the creation of independent commissions to draw boundaries, computer programs and algorithms to divide districts based on census data, and methods based on creating compact districts. Iowa has utilized the nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau for this purpose, and Washington, Arizona and California have similar committees. However, there is the possibility of corruption in an independent commission. Furthermore, districts based on compactness or an algorithm could divide historic communities or people of common interest.

“The underlying idea of a representative district is that people from a particular area represent a particular political view, so compactness makes sense,” Smith wrote. “But that’s often in tension with the value of minority voter representation. Courts have tried to strike a balance . . . It’s also true that districts have been drawn specifically to provide minority representation. The courts have encouraged this at times in order to redress historic wrongs . . . Any way to take the politics out of drawing the lines sounds promising.”


All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Information gathered from https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Extreme%20Maps%205.16.pdf, http://bdistricting.com/2010/FL/, http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/gerry.htm, https://www.britannica.com/topic/gerrymandering, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/howard-steven-friedman/simple-steps-to-eliminate_b_2546929.html, https://legaldictionary.net/gerrymandering/, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2018-02-12/pennsylvania-gerrymandering-fight-just-the-start-of-a-wider-war, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2018-02-15/court-to-seek-new-map-in-pennsylvania-gerrymandering-case,https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/05/us/politics/supreme-court-pennsylvania-gerrymandering.html


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