John Rennie Short: Gerrymandering thwarts will of people

Of the University of Maryland/Baltimore County

November’s midterm elections were some of the most eagerly awaited, closely watched and hyper-partisan of recent years.

But the results for many congressional House seats were already known in advance, because of rampant gerrymandering.

For example, Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District was drawn up in a way that guaranteed the 2018 re-election victory of Democrat John Sarbanes. Congressional districts in Texas were drawn up to favor Republicans like Mike Conway, assured of victory in the 11th District.

The mechanism is simple: The political party that controls state legislatures gets to redraw congressional boundaries every 10 years after the results of the most recent census.

Gerrymandering is the partisan redrawing of these boundaries. Basically, it allows politicians to select their voters rather than the voters to choose their representatives.

In 2012, Republicans won 33 more House seats than Democrats, despite garnering 1.4 million fewer votes. In fact, in the past four congressional elections, Republicans have won a larger share of seats than their share of nationwide votes.

These results are a sure sign that gerrymandering is involved.

The term “gerrymandering” originates with the activities of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who signed a bill in 1812 that created tortured legislative boundaries designed to favor the Democratic-Republican Party — his party. A cartoonist of the day depicted one district as a salamander and dubbed it a “gerrymander.” The system was so “gerrymandered” that the Democratic-Republicans won 72 percent of the seats with 49 percent of the votes.

Gerrymandering involves what’s called the “cracking and packing” of voters. Cracking spreads opposition voters thinly across many districts in order to dilute their power. Packing concentrates opposition voters in fewer districts to reduce the number of seats they can win.

There are four main reasons why gerrymandering has gotten worse in the last 20 years.

1) It is effective in helping political parties hold power in the U.S. House, in addition to state legislatures.

After 40 years of uninterrupted Democratic dominance, the House became competitive in 1994, in large part because the South turned Republican in response to civil rights legislation promoted by Democrats. As Dixie evolved from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican bastion, the House came into play.

Control has seesawed ever since. Gerrymandering is now seen as a way to tip the scales in today’s more competitive climate.

Political consultant Thomas Hofeller, described by many as a gerrymander genius, was particularly effective in designing redistricting strategies for Republicans between 1992 and 2017. He was one of the first to realize that redrawing boundaries was one way to elect as many Republicans as possible.

In 1992, he worked for the Republican National Committee on the drawing of new congressional maps in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio. He subsequently advised Republican politicians across the country on how to redraw electoral maps to their advantage.

2) Gerrymandering has become a much more effective tool in the last 20 years. With sophisticated computer programs and ever more detailed information on voters’ location and preferences, politicians can now crack and pack with surgical precision.

Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District slithers and slides across the state to pick up as many Democratic voters as possible. A Republican Texas packs Democratic voters into just a handful of seats, ensuring a Republican majority.

3) The Supreme Court has effectively sanctioned gerrymandering.

In 1986, in Thornburg v. Gingles, the court ruled against a Democratic legislature’s attempt to thinly spread minority voters among seven new districts in North Carolina. The case was brought by minority groups in the state, who felt it impaired their ability to elect representatives of their choice in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling helped create districts where minority voters were concentrated, so-called majority-minority seats, and hence encouraged the future packing of voters — minority or otherwise.

When the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature proposed a partisan redistricting plan after the 2000 Census, members of the Democratic Party sued in federal court, alleging it was unconstitutional under the one-person, one-vote principle of Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, the court ruled 5-4 not to intervene.

Predictably, partisan gerrymandering then increased exponentially following the 2010 Census.

Shelby County, Alabama filed a case against the constitutionality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, designed to protect voters’ rights in the South. In Shelby v. Holder, the court, again splitting 5-4, overturned key elements of the act. The ruling encouraged partisan gerrymandering in areas of the country previously under federal scrutiny.

In 2017, and again in 2018, the Supreme Court passed up numerous opportunities to rule on the constitutional legality or illegality of gerrymandering. The Supreme Court’s choice not to intervene has emboldened ever more partisan gerrymandering.

4) It is difficult for the courts to agree on solutions.

The efficiency gap measures the number of “wasted” votes for a party that cannot win in a given district. It is determined by dividing the difference between the wasted votes for each side by the total number of votes.

However, even that measure falls short in creating fair elections under our “winner-take-all” system.

Some observers have called for equal weighting, with voters ranking candidates in order of preference rather than just choosing one. But proportional representation would involve major changes in our electoral system, and that is unlikely, at least in the near future.

Gerrymandering has a pernicious impact on the electoral system, and on the wider democratic process. It encourages long-term incumbency and a consequent polarization of political discourse.

In gerrymandered districts, politicians only need to appeal to their base rather than to the broader electorate.

Legal challenges to gerrymandering may succeed, but until then, it remains an ugly fact of the U.S. electoral system. And it belies our claim to be a democracy.
The result is voting in which the redistricting designs of politicians count as much as the will of the people.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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