By Valerie Reich:
Gerrymandering as a term has a largely negative connotation in most circles, yet the act of creating districts is an important part of the legislative process. In theory, by using census data to create districts we are allowing for areas of large population to be “made smaller” and have more opportunity for constituent representation.
Think about Los Angeles, California. According to the US Census Bureau, LA County has a population of more than 10.1 million people. There is no feasible situation in which the entirety of that voting population, approximately 58%, would ever have a homogenous vote. So what happens to the minority voter population?
The first rectangle in the image we can consider as a state, in this case named State A. The population makeup of the state is 60% Blue (Democrat) and 40% Red (Republican). If the districts were split evenly based on numbers alone, the democrats would win in a landslide as their percentage of party devoted voters are greater than the number of republicans, as seen in the second rectangle. Redistricting allows politicians to seize control over the size of their districts and repurpose them to manipulate elections. After going through the legislative redistricting process the democratic stronghold has been spread over all of the districts so it does not hold a strong hold in the majority of the district.
Districts are drawn to based on a political measurement called an efficiency gap. An efficiency gap is the number of “votes each party wastes in an election to determine whether either party enjoyed a systematic advantage in turning votes into seats,” according to Eric Petry at the Brennan Center for Justice. In essence, these calculations figure out how many votes a party needs to win a district. If a party ensures that each district wins by a margin as close to that number as possible, a party can make sure that they have a limited amount of “wasted votes” and maximize their voter potential to win more representative seats.
Our democracy was built on the idea that the majority belief should triumph, but that the minority belief still has a right to be heard. As a modern society, we see this to be true - think of the right to vote for people of color and for women. While these were once ideas only held by a minority, the ability and freedom to express those opinions inspired a change within the greater population and has now lead to the right to vote for all (it’s really most - more on that later) people.
What is gerrymandering and how does it differ from redistricting? How did gerrymandering begin and why does it continue on? Let’s dive into this complicated issue and relate it back to how this affects the House of Representatives and the legislative branch of our government.
Take it Back
Creating and manipulating legislative districts is a practice woven into the fabric of the United States. In 1788, after Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution and join the Union, former Governor Patrick Henry persuaded the state legislature to remake some of the congressional districts to force his political enemy, James Madison, to run against a stronger candidate, James Monroe. This is one of the earliest examples of what would later be called partisan gerrymandering, or the practice of manipulating district lines to benefit a specific party.
The name itself, Gerrymandering, garners its namesake from a piece of legislation passed in 1812. That year, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed into law a redistricting plan that greatly benefited his political party. The district, shaped oddly like a salamander, was combined with his last name to coin the term Gerrymandering.
The Apportionment Act of 1842 sets a ratio of one congressional member for every 70,680 residents and decreed that states must be split into districts with one representative per a district also setting the precedent for future redistricting changes based on population. This effectively stopped states from only allowing representatives from the majority political party to control the state’s spots in the House of Representatives.
In 1889 the Dakota territory, a Republican leaning stronghold, was brought into the United States and through careful negotiating by Republican party, was split into two states thusly allowing double the amount of Republican representatives in Congress.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed stimulating the practice of affirmative gerrymandering, redistricting constituents based on census data to attempt to remedy discrimination and promote the election of minority politicians. Section 5 of the bill speculated that districts that had historically systematically disadvantaged minority voters, mostly the Southern states, would have to have their districts changed and approved by the Department of Justice then and for the future. This preclearance was recently struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court, yet allows for review when necessary.
The 1990s saw an influx in legal action taken against the practitioners of gerrymandering particularly in two Supreme Court Cases. Shaw vs Hunt (1993) pushed the US Supreme Court finds that NC’s legislature had violated the constitution by using race as the predominate factor in drawing district lines yet the decision was reversed in Hunt vs Cromartie (1999) the district was safe because it was drawn to preserve the political party and not based on race.
Types of Redistricting
Redistricting has to follow a broad spectrum of rules but there are two major types: Political and Racial. Racial redistricting is overall illegal due to the equal protections clause of the 14th amendment. Districts cannot be drawn based on racial lines that could disrupt a minority population's participation in voting elections.
Political redistricting, or partisan gerrymandering, is the creation and balance of legislative districts to maintain party support in an area. Using census data, which includes political affiliation, lines are drawn to ensure that parties maintain districts. With population shifts, growth, and movement, these districts change. If 80% of a state’s conservative population lives in the East during 2000, yet by 2010 50% of that 80% has moved West, then the balance of a district would be drastically thrown off. This would inspire politicians to reshape their districts to allow for modest victories for their parties.
In most states, the state legislature has primary control over the redistricting process, though the approval amount to pass the legislative lines varies between states, some requiring a supermajority, simple majority, or joint resolution. In Iowa, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, also include advisory committees to help with the process, though they are not required to abide by the advisory’s finding. In most states there are no rules against legislative representatives or their staff from serving on these commissions thusly creating the ethical dilemma of partisanship driving district lines instead of actual census information.
Some states, Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington, all have instituted non-partisan independent commissions to create their district lines. Members of these commissions cannot be legislators or public officials and cannot, in the future, run for office in the districts they help create. Arizona and California also bar any legislative staff from serving on these commissions, and California, Idaho, and Washington also bar lobbyists from serving.
The Modern Dilemma
Gerrymandering and redistricting as political practices have been both vilified and exalted, but are overwhelmingly misunderstood practices. The act of creating legislative districts is not “bad” or “good”, but rather a necessity to ensure the proper representation allotted for the people by the constitution. The manipulation of district lines for personal gain - gerrymandering - is a legitimate problem that needs to be rectified.
The legal and ethical qualms to creating districts based on race are obvious to most, but there is no such stipulation for partisan geared districts. While in theory assuring that each party is represented (NOTE: which is not each party, rather the two majority holding parties) is good idea, in practice each individual representative has a motive for ensuring their own and their affiliated parties success.
America functions with a capitalistic mind frame - the harder you work the farther you should be able to go. Gerrymandering is a method to make the system work for an individual representative regardless of the associated ethical ramifications. With minimum oversight and full control, allowing politicians to be able to draw district lines themselves is antithetical to the base ideas of districting in the first place.
As a political strategy, the creation of legislative districts and the process of redistricting it is not uncommon amongst the political systems of many countries, yet in the United States the allowance of legislative representatives in the construction of district lines creates remarkably different incentives and pathways to power than other modern political structures.
I do not believe that creating legislative districts is wrong. I believe that it makes perfect sense to use census data to create districts that inspire a competitive climate for legislative elections. I do, however, think it is wrong for the same legislative representatives who are competing in these elections to have the ability to draw district lines. By manipulating the boundaries of an area, legislators are able to ensure they win narrow victories in multiple districts thusly creating partisan strongholds that do not necessarily reflect the desires of the actual populace.
The idea of using non-partisan third party commissions to create district lines is appealing, yet I don’t know if I trust the ethical nature of human to create truly fair and representative districts. We have to remember that partisan gerrymandering is not illegal, only racial gerrymandering is. So while the actions of our representatives might not break the law, I believe they violate an ethical boundary that was created to ensure the purest form of democracy could exist in the United States. If I find an issue within the system, I usually try to provide an answer because even if it’s not great, there is potential in every idea to grow and develop into a solution. Yet with gerrymandering and redistricting I am unsure. There is an ethical fallacy that we have left open within the bounds of the constitution. Can man truly be trusted to create fair, statistical based districts? Should perhaps these districts be created by computer algorithm? Possibly, yet all that is for certain is that until we fix the issue of gerrymandering and the creation of legislative districts, we will continue to have a representative population that we cannot be sure is actually representative of the people.
As always, please post with your questions or comments below.