Every ten years after the census, each state in the US is required to redraw its legislative districts in order to accommodate changes in population. Now redistricting is supposed to be fair and proportional. But since most states in the US have their legislatures control redistricting, this isn’t always the case. As result you have a practice known as gerrymandering. Named after an early 19th century governor of Massachusetts, to gerrymander is to manipulate an electoral district’s boundaries so as to establish a political advantage for a particular party or demographic. The primary goal for this is to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes while minimizing opponents.’ Recently, gerrymandering has become a major problem in the United States mostly due to a dominant political party wanting to retain power in the state. So much so that the US Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear arguments on a partisan gerrymandering case. Nevertheless, though the practice is mostly perceived as bad for democracy through court rulings and anti-discrimination laws, it doesn’t seem to go away any time soon.
Cracking: consists of spreading voters of a particular type among districts in order to deny a sufficiently large voting bloc in any particular district. For example, a state might split urban area voters among several districts of mostly suburban voters. Such arrangement would be on the presumption that the two groups would vote differently and the suburban voters far more likely getting their way in elections. You can see this in action by looking at Austin, Texas in the state’s congressional map where parts of 5 districts are but not one of them contain a majority of its residents or voters. And it’s very clear the Texas Legislature drew these districts that way to curb Austin’s liberal political influence within the Republican dominated state.
Packing: To concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district in order to reduce their influence in other areas. In some cases, legislatures may do this to obtain representation for a community of common interest (like a majority-minority district), rather than to dilute that interest over several districts to the point of ineffectiveness (and to avoid likely racial discrimination lawsuits if minority groups are involved). You can often see this in congressional districts pertaining to urban communities of color. When the party controlling the districting process has a statewide majority, packing is usually not necessary since the minority party can be “cracked” everywhere. Though it’s often employed by parties to pack voters together into a minimum number of districts and don’t have enough representation in others to win the majority of the House’s seats. Because by forfeiting a few districts packed with the opposition, cracking can be used in shaping the remaining districts.
Hijacking: Redraws 2 districts in such a way as to force 2 incumbents of the same political party to run against each other in one district, ensuring that one of them will be eliminated. Meanwhile, this would leave the other district to be won by someone from a different political party. A good example of this happened in my own congressional district during the early 2000s, when Congressmen John Murtha and Frank Mascara had to compete against each other. And my district ended up with a representative from Johnstown.
Kidnapping: Aims to move areas where a certain elected official has significant support to another district, making it more difficult to win future elections with a new electorate. This is often employed against politicians representing multiple urban areas, removing larger cities in order to make the district more rural.
These tactics are typically combined in some form, creating new “forfeit” seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure more seats and greater voter representation of another type. This results in candidates of one party (usually the one responsible for the gerrymandering) winning by small majorities in most of the districts and another winning by a large majority in only a few.
Partisan Gerrymandering– When districts are redrawn in order to increase a political party’s power in legislatures. This is the most general form of gerrymandering that it’s just referred to as “gerrymandering.”
Incumbent or Bipartisan Gerrymandering– When the districts are redrawn in order to protect incumbents in both parties in order to keep the status quo, regardless of what voters want.
Prison-Based Gerrymandering– Counting incarcerated people who aren’t allowed to vote in the district where the prison is located instead of their home district.
Negative Racial Gerrymandering– Drawing districts to prevent racial and ethnic minorities from electing their candidates. White Southern Democrats used this from Reconstruction to the mid-20th century to reduce black people’s voting impact if efforts to effectively disenfranchise them had failed. Prohibited thanks to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent amendments.
Affirmative Racial Gerrymandering– Drawing district lines in order to favor ethnic and racial groups. Though whether it benefits minorities is very hard to say since the practice is controversial that there are several Supreme Court rulings on this. Because this type has been known to both increase and decrease minority representation in federal and state governments. Since the Civil Rights Era, it’s been difficult to determine since most minorities vote Democrat while white conservatives have shifted Republican during the last 4 decades. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has ruled in the North Carolina case that partisan gerrymandering along racial lines is unconstitutional.
Signs of Gerrymandering in Your State:
- The shapes of the congressional districts makes no logical sense. – This is an easy one to spot but it’s not always a guarantee. Sometimes districts can be drawn in ridiculous ways for a very important reason like adhering to the Voting Rights Act. The VRA ensures that minority voters can’t be unfairly packed or cracked in ways that reduce their chances of electing representatives representing their communities. But the vast majority of the time a contorted looking district is a warning sign of gerrymandering.
- Your community has virtually little in common with most of your fellow constituents in the district.– You might feel good about living in a district where your congressman shares your views. But you might think it odd that your fellow supporters don’t even live in the same city or school district. You and your Republican friends have been “packed” together into a conservative echo-chamber. Everyone shares the same ideas and generally agrees with each other. And you start feeling like you don’t need to be involved. Or the communities in the district just don’t simply belong together. For instance, in Pennsylvania, my district, the 18th, is lumped together with most of Washington and Greene Counties along with a good chunks of Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties. But the 9th District includes Fayette and Indiana Counties which don’t have much to do with each other at all. Whereas, residents in Westmoreland and Fayette County have known each other for years, especially where I live. Their high school sports teams play against each other. The state government and other organizations usually has them in the same jurisdiction. People even have friends and family living in both counties. And don’t get me started on the 12th District which is just a sliver stretching from Lawrence County through Beaver, Allegheny, Westmoreland, Somerset, and Cambria, which seems to defy all explanation. Meanwhile, the 14th District is basically crammed into a Democratic pocket in Allegheny County.
- Election outcomes don’t match votes.- This is the surest sign of gerrymandering. One way to measure this through the efficiency gap, computing the difference in wasted votes from the 2 political parties summed all over the districts in the state divided by the number of votes. When parties win elections in rough proportion to their electoral popularity, the efficiency gap is near zero with both parties having an equal wasted vote distribution. But if the gap exceeded a certain threshold, then you can surmise the party with fewer wasted votes could control the state as long as the district map was valid. They used this measure to determined gerrymandering in Wisconsin. In the 2012 Election, Republicans in that state had 48.6% of the 2 party votes, 61% of its 99 districts in the state legislature. Thus, its efficiency gap was 11.69% to 13%. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a case on Wisconsin’s gerrymandering in the fall of this year. Yet, in 2012, Republicans in state legislators also received a minority of the statewide vote in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and my home state of Pennsylvania, but still ended up controlling the state legislatures. And scholars estimate that gerrymandering has helped congressional Republicans control 10-15 more seats in the House even though Democratic congressional candidates received more votes in 2012.
- Your district has been changed and you feel like you can no longer make your voice heard.– Now this has happened to me a couple times in my life since mine was switched from Murtha’s to Murphy’s while I was in college. So let’s say you’re a Democrat who’s voted for Democratic candidates during the last few elections. Then you and other Democrats get “cracked” away from your neighbors and put you into a Republican majority district. That Republican representative in your district doesn’t need to listen to your voice on your concerns because they know all their Republican supporters will re-elect them year after year. Your Democratic voice gets lost in your district’s Republican majority. This might leave you feel hopeless and disenfranchised. Or like you shouldn’t even bother voting because Tim Murphy will always win unopposed.
- Your representative skipped a town hall to go golfing with a lobbyist.– As taxpayers and voters, our politicians are supposed to work for us. Having politicians manipulate voting maps to keep themselves in office turns democracy on its head. When your district’s drawn to avoid outside competition and to ensure only one party’s candidate wins, chances are your representative doesn’t need worry about what their constituents think of them. Thus, they could spend more time hanging out with lobbyist friends and cater to their wealthy donors’ needs. Even if you might belong to the advantaged party, you’re still not going to get good representation because our elected official knows that reelection is in the bag, whether they listen to you or not. You see this a lot with Republican representatives voting for the American Healthcare Act which most of their constituents don’t want at all. It’s very clear, the House couldn’t have passed that bill if gerrymandering wasn’t involved.
- You feel like you don’t need to vote because the candidate who won the primary will win the election anyway.- When one party has manipulated the system to ensure they hold the majority in specific districts, the election itself becomes a mere formality.
- The dominant party’s candidates are more worried about a primary challenger than the opposition candidate.- When elected party officials pay more attention to the primary than the general election, they become more extreme since their focus is scoring points against the other party than solve problems most important to Americans. We should also understand that primaries are held on many different dates, generate less attention, and attract disproportionate shares of hardcore, ideological party activists to the polls. In 2014, only 14.6% of eligible voters participated in congressional primaries which was a record low. This means a tiny fraction of voters who are the most hardened partisans are essentially electing 90% of Congressional members.
- Your representatives support policies most constituents in your district oppose.- Despite that political polarization is strong in America, there are still plenty of issues most voters can agree upon. One recent example of this is Republican healthcare plan to replace Obamacare which faces strong opposition from the American public across the political spectrum and in all 50 states. However, that didn’t stop congressional Republicans from passing the American Healthcare Act in May. They were able to pass such egregious legislation because they either didn’t feel they needed to listen to their constituents’ viewpoints and/or knew that voting the way their constituents wanted them to would result in their party or donors throwing their support to a more extreme primary challenger. The fact so many congressional Republicans avoided holding townhalls when the AHCA was up for debate strongly suggest the latter.
Why Gerrymandering Is Bad:
- Undermines the democratic process by putting the majority party at an unfair advantage.– With gerrymandering, your representatives pick the voters most likely to reelect them again and again. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work. We the voters should choose our politicians, not the other way around. We deserve fair elections and a transparent process for determining our districts. If not, then elections just become mere formalities.
- Takes power away from voters to hold their representatives accountable.-When districts have been drawn to avoid competition and to ensure one party’s candidate wins, our representatives don’t really need to worry about listening to constituents with differing political viewpoints Because they’re virtually guaranteed reelection simply because of their party affiliation and ideology. This can be very frustrating if your representative isn’t in your party and doesn’t support the same views as you do.
- Significant vote wastage from the other side which leads to partisan distortion.– The advantaged party will have voters in packed districts whose votes go for naught. And they will have more than 50%+1 in cracked districts to be reasonably sure of winning. 55-45% or a 10 point partisan advantage is often the target but it can be more. And sometimes it may turn out to be less. Wasted votes are almost always expected in elections. But significant vote wastage in several district may result in representatives that may reflect the interests of slightly more than 50% of their district’s voters. This might not seem much, but when you take the votes altogether, it can really add up. But a high amount of wasted votes means that vast swaths of the American electorate aren’t being represented in Congress or state legislatures at all.
- Reinforces and increases hyper-partisanship and polarization in government.– Forming districts to ensure high levels of partisanship often result in higher levels of partisanship in legislative bodies. Manipulating and stretching congressional districts also pushes incumbents to extremes of the political spectrum. Mostly because fear of a primary challenger drives incumbents focus on maintaining ideological purity than legislative pragmatism. If a substantial number of districts are designed to be polarized, then their representatives will act in a heavily partisan manner, creating and perpetuating partisan gridlock. Nevertheless, redistricting has become a major front in the permanent campaign between parties. Party members, Congress members, and state legislators find their own interests in reelection and majority status importantly connected to these redistricting efforts. This makes them even more inclined to cooperate with partisan team play that it drains the policy-making process of its capacity to negotiate and compromise. Thus, even well-meaning politicians can’t do their jobs representing spread-out communities with different needs and priorities, effectively maintaining offices across wide geographic areas, or solve problems that affect us all.
- Fewer competitive districts and more safe incumbents.– Incumbents are far more likely to be reelected under gerrymandering and are more likely to be of the majority party orchestrating the gerrymander. Thus, incumbents are usually easily renominated in subsequent elections, even if they are in the minority party. California’s 2000 redistricting effort redrew congressional district lines in ways that all but guaranteed incumbent victories. As a result California only saw congressional seat change hands between 2000 and 2010. Not to mention, if districts become increasingly stretched out, candidates must pay increased costs for transportation and campaign advertising. The incumbent’s advantage of securing funds will certainly give them a significant advantage. In many districts, some representatives could run unopposed.
- Reduces political power in minority groups.- Gerrymandering may be advocated to improve representation within legislatures among otherwise underrepresented minority groups by packing them into a single district. But the practices is controversial for good reason. First, being confined to a single district may lead minority groups to remain marginalized because candidates outside their district no longer need to represent them to win elections.
- Emboldens politicians to enact unpopular policies.– Whenever gerrymandering ensures guaranteed victories to your representative, they will have less incentive to represent their constituents’ interests, even when those interests have majority support across the electorate. And they’re much more beholden to their party establishment and wealthy donors. After all, why go to a town hall while reelection’s already in the bag? As a result, your representative more likely to support bills you won’t like whether they belong in your party or not. The passage of the AHCA by congressional Republicans is a perfect example of this since most of the American public strongly opposed it. And even now, it’s very likely many of Republicans who voted for this morally indefensible bill will be reelected anyway.
- Encourages redistricting practices that create inaccurate pictures of community populations.– One practice that exists today is prison-based gerrymandering. Now the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of towns where they’re confined which is used to draw legislative districts. This interferes with equal representation in virtually every state and skews demographics. This phenomenon violates the idea of one person, one vote for 3 reasons. First, these prisoners are disenfranchised in 48 states and can’t vote in local elections anyway. Second, prisons are disproportionately built in rural areas while most incarcerated people call urban areas home. Counting urban prisoners as “residents” of rural districts artificially inflates political representation in rural districts containing large prisons at expense of voters in all other places without them, especially communities bearing the most direct costs of crime. Third, counting large populations of prisoners as local residents leads to misleading conclusions about community size and growth.
- Drives down voter turnout.– Since gerrymandering often results in incumbents able to win elections either lopsided or unopposed, many people get disenchanted with the electoral process and not vote. After all, your vote from the opposition will probably be wasted anyway.
- Allows outside money and influence control parties’ agendas.– This makes representatives more beholden to party ideology and wealthy donors as well as makes it easier for extremists to gain control of the party. What happened to the GOP during the 2016 Election is a perfect example of this.
How to Detect, Handle, and Prevent Gerrymandering:
- Calculating the Efficiency Gap to determine whether either party enjoyed a systematic advantage in turning votes into seats.– This is the difference of the wasted votes between political parties summed all over the districts divided by the number of votes expressed by this equation:
- Efficiency Gap = (Total Democratic Wasted Votes – Total Republican Wasted Votes) ÷ Total Votes
When each party wins a district election in rough proportion to its popularity, the efficiency gap is near zero. But if a district plan is above a certain threshold a gap of 2 or more seats in congressional elections or a gap of 8% or greater for state legislature races, then there’s a constitutional problem.
- Ensure that each plan must meet neutral redistricting criteria.- The US Supreme Court has held that if a jurisdiction’s redistricting plan violates the Equal Protection Clause or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, then a federal court must order the jurisdiction to propose a new redistricting plan that remedies the gerrymandering. If that jurisdiction fails to do so, then the court itself must draw a redistricting plan that cures the violation and use its equitable powers to impose the plan on the jurisdiction. At the state level, courts may impose redistricting plans on jurisdictions where legislatures have to follow standards such as partisan fairness.
- Establish non-partisan redistricting commissions instead of politicians.– After all, if elected legislators want to increase their own political influence, then state legislatures shouldn’t control redistricting. After all, you wouldn’t let athletes serve as referees during their own games. So far, states like California, Hawaii, Washington, New Jersey, and Arizona have resorted to creating standing committees for redistricting since the 2010 census. These commissions’ new maps don’t have to be approved by state legislatures. Yet, they’re not necessarily non-partisan per se since they all have seats for Democratic and Republican appointees. Yet, some have additional seats reserved for independent and non-partisan figures. Letting computers to redraw districts more fairly based on the recent Census.
- Stop counting prisoners as residents like the Census Bureau does for redistricting state and local legislatures.– Counting prisoners as residents leads to prison-based gerrymandering which gives certain communities disproportionate representation. States can correct this by creating a special state-level census collecting home addresses of people in prison and then adjusts the US Census counts prior to redistricting. Legislation in part modeled after how Kansas changes where the US counts students and the military has also been passed in California, Delaware, Maryland, and New York. Another thing states can do is standardize collecting home address information when people are shipped off to the state pen. Over time, this will generate a complete home address information dataset for use in future redistricting or the Census Bureau to use directly. States can also prohibit state, county, and municipal legislative districts from using prison populations as padding. Those at correctional facilities should be declared as living as “addresses unknown” and not included in the redistricting data, except where the home address data exists and a state agency can adjust the Census Bureau’s redistricting data to reflect those counted at home. Such solutions can eliminate electoral harm caused by prison-based gerrymandering and provide a complete solution counting everyone in the correct location by next Census.
- Increase transparency regulations in the redistricting process.– When a single political party controls both the legislative houses in a state during redistricting, both Democrats and Republicans have displayed a marked propensity for conducting the process in secrecy with no oversight or standards of fairness. A 2012 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reviewed every state’s redistricting processes for both transparency and potential for public input, assigning 24 states grades of either D or F. So the need for transparency in redistricting is clear. In response, redistricting legislation has been introduced to Congress a number of times in recent years, including Redistricting Transparency Acts of 2010, 2011, and 2013. The merit on increasing transparency in redistricting is based largely on the idea that lawmakers would be less inclined to draw gerrymandered districts if they had to defend such districts in public.
- Outlaw voter profiling.– In recent years, advancements in technology have led to elaborate voter datasets and special districting software has made gerrymandering a more precise science. Using such databases, gerrymandering politicians can predict voting behavior of each potential district with an astonishing degree of precision, leaving little chance for accidentally creating a competitive district. If we want redistricting based on neutral criteria, then this practice should be done away with since it’s basically the representatives choosing the voters.
- Experiment with alternative voting systems.– The predominant voting system in the US is a first-past-the-post system requiring single member districts to exist. Various alternative district-based voting systems that minimally rely on redistricting or not at all. These typically involve at-large elections or multimember districts. Examples include the single-transferable vote, cumulative voting, and limited voting. There are also proportional voting systems used in most European countries no districts are present, and the party that gets, for example, 30% of the votes gets roughly 30% of the seats in the legislature. Since the US has a 2 party system, that threshold could be about 45-50%. However, proportional voting systems might break the strong constituency link that’s an American election cornerstone.