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Gerrymandering 101

November 10th, 2010 - 11:41 am

Option 3: Behold the horrors of what gerrymandering can do. In this final option, shown in the lower right illustration, the greendot party, despite having only 40% of the vote, has managed to draw the districting lines in such a way that they end up with a two-to-one advantage in congress! The greendot redistricters achieved this feat by shunting as many redstar voters as possible into a lopsided “electoral ghetto,” in which District 3 has a solid 5-0 redstar majority; this soaks up and wastes most of the redstar voting power, leaving the greendot party with a 3-to-2 advantage in Districts 1 and 2.

Clear? This is gerrymandering in a nutshell. And once you’ve mastered it, you’re ready to become a politician and thwart the will of the voters.

The Real World

In case you think the examples given above are too simplified and extreme to be used in real life: Dream on, my friend. Real-world gerrymandering is even more outrageous than options “2″ and “3″ shown in the example. Because at least in the sample illustration the gerrymandered district boundaries look like reasonable straight lines. But populations in the real world are not as evenly distributed as in the example, so in order to achieve the same level of gerrymandering, politicians must draw redistricting lines so bizarre as to boggle the mind — as you will see in Part II tomorrow.

But I know you don’t want to wait until then to see an example, so here’s a sneak preview:


This is the 3rd Congressional District in Maryland. It was created after the 2000 census by Democratic politicians seeking to gerrymander a Democratic-majority district out of the surrounding Republican-leaning neighborhoods. The district is so contorted, so self-evidently artificially constructed that it makes the gerrymandered districts of the 19th century look positively restrained by comparison.

Multiply this scenario by 435 and you have the United States House of Representatives. Maryland-3 is not an exceptional case: most congressional districts are gerrymandered to some degree or another, even those that don’t look so extreme on a map. And don’t assume that if you discovered a district that is, say, 85% Republican, then you have strong evidence of Republican gerrymandering. Quite the opposite. Such districts are almost always the handiwork of Democratic redistricters trying to cram as many opposition voters together as possible, an example of the practice known as “packing”:

The two aims of gerrymandering are to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes and to minimize the effect of opponents’ votes. One strategy, packing, is to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. … A second strategy, cracking, involves spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts in order to deny them a sufficiently large voting block in any particular district. The strategies are typically combined, creating a few “forfeit” seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure even greater representation for voters of another type.

But these gerrymandering strategies can backfire — as they did in 2010, spectacularly. Which explains how the Republicans managed to win so many seats in a nation significantly gerrymandered by Democrats. What happened is this: Over the years, Democrats in many states created many congressional districts in which they diluted Republican voters to approximately 45% of the electorate, thinking this a safe margin for Democratic politicians to win every future election. But in a “wave year,” enough disgusted swing voters abandon the party in power and (at least temporarily) switch allegiances, and suddenly the 45%-and-no-more squandered Republican vote climbs over the 50% mark. Boom. Gerrymandering has blown up in the politicians’ faces.

Seeking to avoid this eventuality, redistricters in some states have resorted to what I call “defensive gerrymandering,” where they increase the proportion of their own party’s voters per district to safe levels, where even a wave election would not produce enough of a swing to flip the district to the opposition. The trick is to find an acceptably safe level without “wasting” too many of your own party’s voters in a particular district, in essence “packing” the district to your own overall disadvantage.

Not every state redraws its district lines according to gerrymandering principles. Some have independent supposedly bipartisan commissions to do the job. But most states, alas, leave it up to power-hungry politicians. Republican, Democratic, it doesn’t matter: given half a chance they will gerrymander the hell out of their constituents. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, because the system is self-perpetuating: the politicians we elect through these gerrymandered districts (and that includes state-level gerrymandered districts) are the ones making the rules, and they’re not likely to give up their grip on the controls.

Adding to the craziness: There are federal rules in place to ensure that ethnic minorities don’t get completely disenfranchised by racial gerrymandering, so states often have to also incorporate race into the mix, going to extreme lengths to create districts populated mostly by this-or-that racial group — federally mandated “packing.”

What makes things complicated is that not every state is consistently under the control of the same party census after census. So while the Republicans in a given state may have gerrymandered the district boundaries after the 1980 census, the Democrats may have had a majority after the 1990 census and counter-gerrymandered the existing districts; in 2000 a divided legislature may have argued over and re-re-counter-gerrymandered those districts, and so on. The end result is often what we see today: ludicrous, labyrinthine district boundaries that are the detritus of decades of back-and-forth gerrymandering attempts.

The End?

Gerrymandering is dirty politics, but it’s all-pervasive across the American landscape. You who are reading this, right now, are likely to live in a gerrymandered congressional district. And you’re either happy with the arrangement, or blithely unaware and just don’t care. Because few people ever complain or even think about their district boundaries.

Is this the end of real democracy?

 


 

Now that we’ve covered the gerrymandering basics, let’s move on to Part II:

The Top Ten Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts in the United States (plus 20 bonus districts not mentioned in the title!).

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