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Gerrymandering 101

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.

How to Gerrymander: The Classic Example

This well-known example clearly illustrates in the simplest terms just how nefarious and effective gerrymandering can be. There are various versions of this "gerrymandering prototype" to be found in books and online, but none of the ones I surveyed had clear illustrations or intelligible explanations, so I've taken it upon myself to start from scratch and create my own illustrations and annotations.

Sample population distribution: each symbol represents a voter in a generic state.

Option 1: A fair and evenhanded redistricting.

In the illustration to the left you see a schematized state. The new census shows that it has 15 inhabitants, scattered equally throughout the territory; 9 of them are consistent voters for the "redstar" party, represented by red stars; 6 of them are "greendot" party voters, represented by green dots. The time has come for redistricting, and your job is to carve up the state into three congressional districts each containing exactly five voters. What do you do?

Option 1: Well, a 9-to-6 split in the electorate means that the state is 60% redstar and 40% greendot. So if your goal was to be as fair and evenhanded as possible, you'd draw the district lines as shown in the illustration at the upper right: you'd end up with two districts which were majority redstar, and one district that was majority greendot, and thus the voters of the state overall would get fairly true representation of their political views in congress. (In this example, District 1 would have a 3-to-2 redstar majority, District 2 would have a 3-to-2 greendot majority, and District 3 would have a 4-to-1 redstar majority.)

But what if you were a partisan redstar politician? Your goal would not be to have fair redistricting; your goal would be to shut out your opponents as ruthlessly as possible. And thus we turn to the next possibility: Majority gerrymandering.

Option 2: Majority gerrymandering to ensure complete electoral dominance.

Option 3: Gerrymandering designed to ensure over-representation for the smaller party.

Option 2: If your goal was to ensure that your redstar party won as many seats as possible in upcoming elections, you'd strive to create districts in which redstar voters had a slim majority in every single district. So you could gerrymander the boundaries to look like they do in the illustration at the lower left. In this example, each and every district has been purposely designed to have a 3-to-2 redstar majority, and the end result would be that all three districts would elect redstar representatives, and the 40% of the population who are greendot voters would be disenfranchised -- no elected official would represent their views.

And lastly: What if you were an incumbent greendot politician looking at the new census map aghast, noting that demographic shifts had now given the opposition redstar party a 60/40 advantage among voters. What would you do? More precisely, what would you do if you were really really evil, like the typical politician? Why, you'd resort to the most diabolical form of redistricting, Minority Gerrymandering:

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!).