Illustration by Jason Reed

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.

The next census is scheduled to take place in 2020 under President Donald Trump’s watch. The process has already been criticized as being political, as the budget for the U.S. Census was slashed by the current administration. Critics fear this will lead to undercounting of communities of color, skewing the numbers that will be used when it comes time to reexamine political districts across the country.

Trump’s pick to lead the 2020 Census, Thomas Brunell, has no government experience and wrote a book that argued that competitive elections were bad for the country. In the book, he argued that the United States should “pack” districts with as many like-minded partisan voters as possible.

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.

what is gerrymandering map Photo via SBTL1/Flickr ()()

An example of gerrymandering: Illinois’ 4th district

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.

One estimate by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 16 or 17 current Republican seats in the House of Representatives are believed to be the result of gerrymandering. However, both major political parties have used the practice to their advantage in the past.

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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 is gerrymandering Screengrab via @gelliottmorris/Twitter ()()

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.”

what is gerrymandering Screenshot via GovTrack.us ()()

Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District is an example of extreme gerrymandering.

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.

The Supreme Court has also started to address political gerrymandering. In October, it heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case that argued Republicans in Wisconsin drew politically charged district maps.

Before the case was heard by the court, a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed several legal briefs that argued in favor of ending political gerrymandering.

“Americans do not like gerrymandering. They see its mischief, and absent a legal remedy, their sense of powerlessness and discouragement has increased, deepening the crisis of confidence in our democracy,” the brief from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) read. “Partisan gerrymandering has become a tool for powerful interests to distort the democratic process.”

In December, the Supreme Court agreed to add a second partisan gerrymandering case, Benisek v. Lamone,  to its docket. Unlike the gerrymandering case brought to the court last year in regards to Wisconsin’s state maps, the new case will examine a single district in Maryland that Republicans argue was politically gerrymandered.

However, in late December a judge in Pennsylvania said that while districts in the state were drawn to favor Republicans, they did not violate the state’s constitution. The judge, P. Kevin Brobson, said Democrats who brought up the case did not give a strong enough legal “standard” for creating non-partisan maps, according to the New York Times.

On Jan. 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled by a 4-3 vote that the state’s congressional maps were unconstitutional, giving them until Feb. 9 to draw new maps. The Republican-controlled state legislature drew the maps in 2011. The new maps could have ramifications in the 2018 midterm elections.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a federal court similarly ruled that its congressional districts were drawn to ensure “domination of the state’s congressional delegation” and ordered the state’s general assembly to redraw maps by Jan. 24.

A Democratic state senator in North Carolina proposed creating an independent commission to draw congressional maps in response.

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.

In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, which argued that Republicans gerrymandered districts in Wisconsin. 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.

As we noted before, the court is also hearing a second political gerrymandering case, this time brought up by Republicans against Democrats over a district in Maryland.

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