Gerrymandering - Proving All Politics Is Local
What is Gerrymandering, how does it happen and why? We look at examples and explore some alternatives.
What is it?
Gerrymandering refers to the process of carving out legislative districts for political advantage. In 1810, Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts, began the process of redistricting, or repositioning congressional districts based on population changes. Shortly after he had finished and passed into law the new districts he had created, writers at the Boston Gazette compared the shape of one district to that of a salamander. Combining the name of Governor Gerry with the word salamander, they coined Gerry’s new district as a “Gerry”-mander, and the name has stuck ever since. The practice of Gerrymandering predates Governor Gerry, as founding father Patrick Henry originally designed Virginian electoral districts with the intent of foiling the election of James Madison.
How does it work?
By shaping legislative districts in various ways, officeholders are able to affect which voters they will be responsible to on election day. The opportunity for this arises out of the once-a-decade district re-apportionment required by a set of 1960s Supreme Court cases. As voters move into different congressional districts, the population in each of these districts becomes uneven, which results in residents of relatively unpopulated districts having greater representation (because a single vote from a less populated district will comprise a greater proportion of the total votes cast).
These Supreme Court cases require state legislatures to redraw districts every ten years (coinciding with the national Census) to ensure that legislative districts are roughly equal in population. In redrawing districts, officeholders can dilute the opposition party’s votes by “cracking” its voters across several districts, making it more difficult to construct a majority in any district, and can waste the opposition party’s vote by “packing” its voters into unnecessarily safe districts, reducing its capacity to compete in the remaining districts.
Following the early creation of the term and its first use in American politics, Gerrymandering has been a highly visible part of the redistricting process. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 added racial considerations into the mix. Rather than creating districts based solely on party registration, states began to manipulate districts to concentrate certain minorities thereby altering the political landscape. Though in recent years this practice of racial redistricting has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, gerrymandering remains constitutional and continues across the country.
Where do we see it?
States have responded to attempted gerrymandering in several different ways. In Texas, a 2003 controversy erupted when the Republican dominated legislature redistricted in the middle of the decade, without new census data. Since no decision was reached about redistricting in 2000 when census data had first been released, Republican leaders believed they had the ability to carry out a redistricting at any point before the next census. Using the power of their majority, they maximized the number of Republican House representatives in the state and, more significantly, seemed to discriminate against minorities in the process. Democrats took the legal battle first to state then to Federal court. The Supreme Court took the case and in 2006, ruled that the redistricting itself was legal. The Court found however, that one district diluted the votes of minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Republican redistricting was largely preserved and a belief in gerrymandering with it.
A 2003 redistricting attempt in Colorado saw Republicans attempt a similar strategy as in Texas in order to maximize Republican representation. However, unlike Texas, Colorado had already redistricted in that decade. The Supreme Court of Colorado therefore struck down the redistricting, saying it could only occur once per decade according to the state constitution.
The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case after a lengthy debate, ending the attempt.
In Florida, voters in the 2010 election approved a measure that outlawed drawing a district to benefit an incumbent party or politician. Although this amendment effectively outlaws gerrymandering, it does not create any new protections against the practice or change how redistricting occurs. What it does is create a new legal tool for the state’s courts to deal with cases related to electoral politics and redistricting. However, redistricting in Florida continues to be a partisan affair. Republicans control the governorship, the House, and the Senate in Florida, so they are the party primarily responsible for planning Florida’s new districts. Democratic leaders in the state have promised a legal challenge. In Florida, it appears that the amendment simply moved the fight over redistricting from the legislature to the courts.
Are there alternatives?
Unlike in Australia, Canada, or most European countries, anti-gerrymandering reforms have failed to gain much political traction in the United States due to entrenched political interests, however alternatives do exist. The most commonly proposed tactic for eliminating gerrymandering is the creation of an independent and objective commission to draw the boundaries of electoral districts rather than leave this task to the legislature; the United Kingdom and Australia have specially designated commissions for this purpose. These commissions, in the few places where they have been implemented in the United States, are usually made up of relatively apolitical members, selected with the aim of achieving equitable representation of Republicans and Democrats.
At present, however, the only American state which consistently draws its electoral districts in this manner is Iowa, whose nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau has sole oversight of the process. Instances of bipartisan commission failure are more common however; one established by the Missouri legislature after the 2000 Census to redistrict that state infamously ended in intractable deadlock. In 2005 the voters of Ohio soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have established a state-level districting commission. Moreover, employing a commission is no guarantee that gerrymandering will not take place—California’s Congressional districts, for instance, are the result of a bipartisan gerrymander that effectively locks the balance of power in the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives at the status quo. This strategy was so effective that in 2004 not a single one of California’s 53 House seats changed hands.
As an alternative to human intervention, some political scientists and mathematicians have developed computer programs and mathematical algorithms to create electoral districts. One examples is the “shortest splitline algorithm” created by the Center for Range Voting which uses a computer to divide a state into the appropriate number of evenly populated districts using the shortest possible straight lines. Another example is a program written by software engineer Brian Olson which places voters in districts such that the average distance from a voter to the center of his or her district is minimized. Although solutions of this kind do create unbiased districts, whether or not such districts are fair is subjective; since algorithmic solutions have no concept of “communities of interest,” they can result in splitting a single city into multiple districts or lumping communities with very different interests (but geographic proximity) into the same district.
Where do we go from here?
Gerrymandering is a hallmark of American politics. The tactic serves the self-interests of whichever party is in power, and has become thoroughly entrenched in the political process. However, as recent attempts in Florida and Missouri show, there is a genuine desire for reforming the process of redistricting. Alternatives, such as bipartisan commissions and technological solutions, do exist and while both have drawbacks and have not proven successful in practice, they need to be better developed in order to compete with the status quo.