Imagine this scenario: you’re an elected official in a state legislature in charge of re-drawing congressional district lines (these are the physical land boundaries that representatives are elected to represent). Recent changes in the populations of your state’s towns and cities has changed with new census data, requiring the re-drawing of districts to properly represent the new population density across the state.
Your party (doesn’t matter which) currently enjoys a majority control of the legislature from the last election, but now, unfortunately, has less popular support than the opposing party. If something isn’t done, the next election will sweep the opposing party into a majority control of the legislature- your incumbent party will be out of power, in other words.
A tough situation, to be sure, but fortunately, you don’t care about democracy and are only concerned with protecting your own (and by extension, your party’s) power. Fortunately for you, there is a process called Gerrymandering which can protect your minority party’s control from the opposing majority party.
Drawing power into existence
Long story short: Gerrymandering is a process of re-drawing congressional districts for a given party to ensure that party stays in power (holds more congressional seats) despite receiving less votes in an election. If Gerrymandering sounds blatantly anti-democratic, that’s because it is.
Gerrymandering traces its roots back to Governor Eldridge Gerry back in 1812. As governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed a bill which re-drew congressional district boundaries to favor his party’s hold on power. The result ended up with one district in particular looking bizarre, as shown in this political cartoon.
The strategy was, and still is, to group the voters who support and oppose you in such a way as to make sure you maintain a majority of congressional seats. Gerrymandering can effectively ensure a party stays in power (aka maintains a majority of seats in Congress) despite losing an election by as much as 40% to 60% of the vote. Here’s how, courtesy of the Brennen Center for Justice.
In their hypothetical scenario, the blues have 36 votes versus red’s 29 votes- a clear majority. In a sane world, the blues would then secure a majority of seats in Congress- say 3 blue seats to 1 red seat. But as the district lines are drawn here, the reds can ensure a 3-1 seat advantage despite receiving significantly less votes.
The blues could also easily ensure they receive all of the congressional seats via this Gerrymandering design.
Here’s another example by Richmond University.
Here’s the strategy:
- Strategy 1: If your party is in the minority- bunch all of your opposition into a small number of districts (thus nullifying much of their votes) and draw the others so you have an advantage, thus winning a majority of congressional seats.
- Strategy 2: If your party is in the majority- ensure your majority of votes extends to each drawn district and crowd the minority party from virtually any seats.
Gerrymandering in practice
Let’s start with Michigan, courtesy of Michigan Radio.
Pay attention to the Detroit area districts in the bottom right portion of the image as well as districts 8, 7, 5, and 3. District 14 is probably the most ridiculous:
Michigan is but one example of a countrywide trend. Take North Carolina.
Apparently, Frankenstein lives after all- and there are many other examples.
Both major political parties have engaged in Gerrymandering in the past. Lately, it’s largely Republicans engaging in Gerrymandering as a reflection of their slowly but consistently shrinking voting base over time. Recognizing reality is one thing, but this is not an issue of blaming political party A or B. It’s the political system itself which allows for Gerrymandering to exist. Put the incentive to hold power by cheating democracy and party A, B, or X will assuredly use it, given the opportunity.
For Gerrymandering in the US, there is good news and bad news.
The good news: Michigan in 2018 passed Ballot Proposal 2 by a vast margin (61% to 39%). Proposal 2 takes the power of re-drawing districts from the legislature – where said Gerrymandering originates – and transfers the power to an independent redistricting commission of registered voters.
Here’s how it works, step by step:
- The commission will have 13 members: 4 voters who affiliate Republican, 4 voters who affiliate Democrat, and 5 voters not affiliated with any party. To be on the commission, one must be registered to vote and not be a current (or in the past 6 years): candidate for office, elected official, official member of a party (note you can only be chosen if you affiliate with a party, but are not an actual member), lobbyist, paid political consultant, legislative employee (for example, congressional staffer), or close family member of any of the above.
- The Secretary of State will mail 10,000 applications to randomly chosen registered voters, then will randomly form three pools from these (60 for each of Republican/Democratic affiliates and 80 for the non-affiliates).
- These pools are then sent to the 1) majority leader and 2) minority leader of the Senate, and the 3) Speaker and 4) Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, where they can each remove up to 20 names- which is undoubtedly the worst part of the bill. If names are removed, more people are randomly selected from the initial pool of 10,000 until the three pools of 60 Republican-affiliated voters, 60 Democratic-affiliated voters, and 80 non-affiliated voters remain.
- The 13-member commission of 4 Republican-affiliated voters, 5 Democratic-affiliated voters, and 5 non-affiliated voters will then be randomly chosen from these three pools. They will serve until the Michigan congressional districts are re-drawn for a given census cycle. For the next census cycle, the process repeats from the start.
It’s important to note that the legislature does still have a say in the process by removing some names from the randomly chosen pools. Further legislation or ballot proposals could remove this step in the process altogether.
Nevertheless, taking the power of drawing Michigan’s congressional districts from political parties via the legislature is a great step for democracy in the state. In this system, non-politically connected voters ultimately will be drawing the districts.
It remains to be seen how the process will ultimately pan out, but there is a solid reason for hope. Proposal 2 is a case of voters taking power and placing it into the hands of voters themselves- this is democracy in action.
Other states have recently passed similar legislation creating independent redistricting committees. They are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Washington.
Now for the bad news.
The US Supreme Court ruled in June on Rucho v Common Cause that Gerrymandering is “beyond the reach of the federal courts” meaning that Gerrymandering is effectively legalized on the federal level. The vote was straight down right/left lines (5-4). Note that the states which passed their own independent redistricting legislation can keep their systems in place- the ruling merely means no action from the federal level will be taken.
The Supreme Court has long been a reactionary institution which seeks to protect established power from pressures by the citizenry at large. It’s long-standing function was evident and on display with the recent Gerrymandering ruling.
What can be done to rid ourselves of Gerrymandering? There are several proposed methods of doing so.
Since the Supreme Court isn’t taking action on Gerrymandering at the federal level, the states themselves could each pass their own independent redistricting commissions as was the case of the states listed previously, but there are other solutions proposed which could prove more effective.
A constitutional amendment could be passed to ban the practice of Gerrymandering. This would require either 1) two-thirds vote of the Senate and House of Representatives or 2) two-thirds vote of state legislatures. 33 constitutional amendments have been passed in America’s history, the last one being passed in 1992.
Alternatively, the Supreme Court could reverse their Rucho v Common Cause position by issuing another ruling on Gerrymandering which would overrule the ruling passed in June. This would require what is called “packing the court”, or having a US president appointing more judges than the current 9 members.
The power to determine Supreme Court size rests with the US Congress and if legislation is passed expanding the Supreme Court (to say, 11 or 15 members), the president could appoint the new judges who support overruling Rucho v Common Cause by issuing a new ruling to ban Gerrymandering.
Finally, proportional representation has been proposed as a solution to Gerrymandering and forms the most wide-ranging of the proposals.
Douglass Amy sums up the problem of Gerrymandering as originating with our single member district system, where we vote for a single congressperson from a congressional district. Whoever wins a plurality of votes, wins. But there is an inherent flaw in this system, says Amy:
“Most Americans believe that who wins political races is decided on election day by the voters. But in a single-member district electoral system that is frequently not true. Who wins is often determined before voters even go to the polls – sometimes many years before. The outcome is decided by those who draw the district lines. If they decide to create a district that is 70 percent Republican, there is little chance the Democratic candidate will win. And Republican candidates will usually lose if a district is drawn so that it is predominantly Democratic. Voters go to the polls confident in the illusion that they control the fate of the candidates. But in reality they are often only participating in the last act of political play whose ending has already been written.”
Amy’s answer to this problem lies in enacting an electoral system based on proportional representation instead, which would result in representatives being elected based on the proportion of the votes cast.
Amy further offers an example of how this proportional representation system would work in practice:
“Imagine, for example, that we have a region in a state that is 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democratic and that it must be divided into two ten-member PR [proportional representation-CTP] election districts. No matter how the district lines are drawn and no matter how party voters are distributed between the districts, each party will be able to elect its fair share of representatives. If all the Democrats are packed into one district, they will constitute 80 percent of the voters there and elect eight of the ten representatives in that district and none in the other – 40 percent of the total seats. If the Democratic voters are fragmented and make up 40 percent minorities in the each of the two districts, they will be able to elect four representatives in each – and still receive 40 percent of the total seats.”
The prospects for such a system appear promising, as it would virtually eliminate wasted votes- a serious and fundamental flaw in our current electoral system. If we are to be a democracy based upon the principal of one person, one vote, a proportional representation system could ensure every vote counts.