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Gerrymandering 101

November 10th, 2010 - 11:41 am

Gerrymander: It’s a dirty word. Everyone knows it’s a political insult, but not everyone understands exactly what it means. And even many of those who know what gerrymandering is don’t fully grasp how it completely dominates American politics.

Welcome to Gerrymandering 101.

Pundits across the political spectrum are now noting that the 2010 Republican tsunami was bigger and more significant than it might appear on the surface, because the Republicans not only won a record number of federal races, they also utterly crushed the Democrats in local races, winning at least 675 seats in state legislatures. This spells doom for the Democrats because next year the states will re-draw the congressional district lines to accommodate the results of the 2010 census:

When the 2010 Census results are announced next month, the 435 House seats will be reapportioned to the states, and state officials will draw new district lines in each state. … Republicans look to have a bigger advantage in this redistricting cycle they’ve ever had before.

“Advantage”? Advantage in what? Isn’t drawing little squiggly lines on a map the most boring and least consequential job imaginable?

Think again. Remember this motto: He Who Draws The Lines Determines The Winners.

Yes, it’s that simple. If you can’t quite visualize how gerrymandering can possibly succeed — after all, the number of voters stays the same no matter how you group them, and if you exclude opposition voters from one district, you necessarily must include them in an adjacent district — keep reading. This essay explains in no uncertain terms how manipulating district boundaries can lead to a complete subversion of true representative government.

The G-Word

When commentators blithely note that Republicans will have a “redistricting advantage” next year because of their dominance in state houses, they gloss over the ugly details of what that means. Few are willing to speak The G-Word, but Jonathan Chait at The New Republic takes the plunge:

2. Redistricting. If that’s not a problem enough for Democrats, it’s about to get a lot worse. Republicans had their wave election at a very convenient time, putting themselves in position to control numerous state legislatures and thus control the next round of redistricting, which will last a decade. Partisan gerrymandering can be an extremely powerful tool, and combined with the natural geographic gerrymander, can give Republicans an overwhelming advantage, if not quite an absolute lock.

The reason even most liberals are keeping mute about the horrors of the upcoming Republican gerrymandering is that Democrats have been the most ardent practitioners of it whenever they’ve had the slightest chance. You may have wondered how America overall tends to prefer conservative policies (pollsters like to say “We’re a center/right country”) yet we often have a liberal or at least Democratic majority in the Congress. How can this be? Gerrymandering. It’s so powerful that it has at times fundamentally altered the political slant of our government. Many of the worst gerrymandered districts illustrated in tomorrow’s Part II of this essay (“The Top Ten Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts in the United States” — don’t miss it!) are the handiwork of Democratic politicians, so the Democrats would have no leg to stand on if they were to now turn around and criticize the Republicans for doing what they’ve been doing for decades — centuries, even. The Republicans have done it too, of course, but in the majority of states in recent cycles, the Democrats have had the advantage, and they’ve not been ashamed to use it.

But that brings up a question of morality: Should the Republican class of 2010 continue the partisan cheating? Is turnabout fair play? Just because the Democrats have attempted to skew the national dialogue for decades, does that give the Republicans the right to do so now? And if your answer is “No,” then how can we possibly stop the practice? Because if the Republicans refrain from gerrymandering the 2010 census, then the Democrats’ pre-existing gerrymandering will remain in place, allowing them to remain over-represented in future elections, and when they regain power they’ll continue redistricting the country to their advantage, laughing at the Republicans for not having done the same when they had the chance.

The original “Gerry-mander” district, from 1812

Gerrymander Nation

Gerrymandering is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around since the very beginnings of our nation, so long that one could fairly say that the United States has been built on the principle of gerrymandering. The very first congressional districts were somewhat gerrymandered, and it’s been downhill ever since. The phenomenon was finally noticed and properly named in 1812:

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette newspaper on March 26, 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. … The term was a portmanteau of the governor’s last name and the word salamander.

A misshapen or lopsided district is not always due to political shenanigans. In a few cases, the apparent gerrymandering can be forgiven, because it’s following natural geographic features — coastlines, mountain ranges, rivers — or pre-existing zigzagging political divisions, such as state borders or city limits. But in every instance where the lines follow no natural contour, you can rest assured they were drawn to benefit the party in power.

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