Illustration by Jason Reed (Fair Use)
Gerrymandering has serious consequences. But what is it?
Anyone upset with the current state of politics has almost certainly complained about gerrymandering to you.
They’re not alone. Gerrymandering has been fought in courts—it’s currently facing a battle in the Supreme Court, in fact—and activists in some states are trying to fix the practice. Even former President Barack Obama called for the end of gerrymandering during a State of the Union speech.
Indeed, if some experts are to be believed, gerrymandering is the single most important factor in American politics today.
Here’s everything you need to know about gerrymandering.
What is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering starts with the drawing of political districts—designated areas of voters—across the United States. Each member of the House of Representatives represents a single congressional district.
The number of representatives elected per state is based on the Census count of the state’s population. The idea seems simple enough—until partisan politics become involved.
Gerrymandering is essentially a particular political party drawing district lines in a way that benefits their own party. State legislatures are generally in charge of creating the boundaries, but that is not always the case. More on that later.
How long has this been going on?
The term “gerrymandering” is nothing new. It’s named after Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who in 1810 redrew districts in Massachusetts to favor his own party. The term was added to Webster’s Dictionary in 1864, according to Smithsonian.com.
Why does gerrymandering matter?
Gerrymandering has very real political consequences. For instance, take the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.
Decision Desk HQ released a forecast for how the 2018 midterm elections might shape out for the House of Representatives, where all 435 congressional districts are up for grabs.
Trend lines are currently projecting Democrats to get more votes in the midterms than Republicans due to plummeting poll numbers for both President Donald Trump and Congress as a whole, which is currently controlled by Republicans.
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As Decision Desk HQ points out, however, the gerrymandered districts across the United States would result in Democrats receiving 54 percent of the total vote, but only 206 seats in the House, compared to Republicans, who would gain 229 seats with less than half of the overall vote.
While it’s difficult to blame all of this on gerrymandering—Democrats tend to live in clusters, or large urban centers, which leaves other districts open to Republican lawmakers—it certainly has a hand in creating a situation where the majority of the nation votes one way, but a different result ends up in Congress.
What are some of the more brazen examples of gerrymandering?
There are quite a few districts in the United States that you’d be hard-pressed to figure out how they came to be.
For example, Maryland’s districts, which were drawn by Democrats, are quite wild. Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District snakes along the state’s coast, into the heart of the state and even stretches into the northern part of the state, sometimes with small areas of land linking them together. It roughly looks like a backward “S.”
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s districts, drawn by Republicans, were equally as egregious. However, the Supreme Court struck down districts in the state, arguing that lawmakers violated the Constitution by relying on race to draw the districts. Similar cases have occurred in Alabama and Virginia.
If you still need convincing about just how winding some of the boundaries are, Slate created a timed-puzzle game that shows you districts for each state and how oddly shaped they can be. Check it out here.
Are there alternatives to gerrymandering?
Yes! While most district boundaries are drawn by state legislatures, some states have taken different approaches.
For example, in Arizona, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is tasked with creating districts and is a non-partisan and independent group. This takes away the obvious political motivation parties have for drawing boundaries in ways that benefit them.
On its website, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission says its goal is to “redraw Arizona’s congressional and legislative districts to reflect the results of the most recent census,” and make sure that districts are “roughly equal” in population.
Meanwhile, there have been several high-profile court cases brought up against gerrymandering—with varying results. Oh, and if you want to take any human element out of creating districts, there is a computer program that can do that, too.
The Supreme Court is also set to hear a case against political gerrymandering as a whole and determine if it is constitutional. The case comes as a result of a decision by a court in Wisconsin, which found that the state’s Republican lawmakers had violated the Constitution through partisan gerrymandering. The case will be the first the court makes a decision on the key parameters of drawing district lines by politicians.
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