By Karen Ramirez and Simon Dürr
Political parties have been redrawing voting districts to maintain political power ever since the US was founded, but gerrymandering, as this practice is called, has recently been under heightened scrutiny due to its increasing impact on US electoral results. The rising sophistication and success of gerrymandering, aided by the rapid advancements in computer modelling of voting preferences and detailed information about socioeconomic status, down to the level of individual houses, has put into question whether constituents in gerrymandered districts are fairly represented.
The origins of the term gerrymandering can be traced back to 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry approved the redrawing of Massachusetts’ senate voting districts to give an electoral advantage to his political party. In response, the opposition party adopted the term ‘gerrymander’, which is a combination of the Governor’s last name and one of his redrawn voting districts that was said to look like a salamander.
Today, many voting districts throughout America continue to be drawn into unpredictable shapes for the purpose of influencing voting results. Voting districts for the US House and state legislatures are redrawn every ten years, after the census takes place. This is done to make sure that as states’ populations change over time, each district still has an equal number of people in it. For the majority of states, the state legislature is in charge of redistricting, and whichever political party has control of the state legislature tends to redraw voting districts to disadvantage their opponents during the next election.
A visual representation of gerrymandering makes it easier to understand how the different divisions of voting districts can significantly impact voting outcomes. Consider a hypothetical state that has five voting districts (i.e. five seats) and a population where 60% of voters favor the “black” party and 40% favor the “blue” party. In an ideally drawn electoral map, the state’s voting districts would be drawn to be ‘compact and fair’, winning the black party three seats because its voters would be distributed into three districts, and winning the blue party two seats because its voters would be distributed into two districts. If the hypothetical state’s voting districts are drawn to be ‘compact but unfair’, the black party would win all five seats because its voters would be evenly distributed to be the majority of voters in all five districts (this is known as “cracking” voters). If the state’s voting districts are drawn to be ‘not compact and unfair’, the black party’s voters would be concentrated, or “packed”, into two districts, winning the majority party only two seats. Meanwhile the blue party’s voters would end up being in the majority in three districts, winning the blue party three seats while making up only 40% of the overall vote.
It can be hard to believe that a political party with the minority share of overall voters could end up winning a majority of seats. These strategies of “packing and cracking” voters have many real-world examples such as Michigan’s state assembly, Maryland’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th congressional house districts, and Wisconsin’s state assembly. An example of the extreme nature of US gerrymandering is the 30-million-dollar sum spent by Republicans in 2010 on a strategy called ‘REDMAP’, which helped them win key state assemblies and oversee the redistricting process in these states. Due to the success of this strategy, Democrats are unlikely to attain a majority in one or both chambers of Congress in the 2018 midterms even while currently having an edge over Republicans in total votes. Trends also show that in some states, like Wisconsin, the use of gerrymandering has increased after each census.
Political gerrymandering has usually been legally allowed because a standard has not been set for what constitutes as excessive political gerrymandering, but this is not the case for racial gerrymandering. In 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina’s voting districts would need to be redrawn because they had been gerrymandered along racial lines, by packing black voters into two districts. One of these districts had been drawn to stretch over 150 km, while at some points being only 3 km wide, to connect multiple towns that had a large population of black voters.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing its first political gerrymandering case in over a decade. The outcome of this case could set a standard for what is considered unconstitutional political gerrymandering. In Gill vs. Whitford, Wisconsin Democrats are challenging the state assembly voting districts that were secretly drawn by Republican state legislators after the 2010 census. These gerrymandered voting districts resulted in a big loss of seats for Democrats in 2012 despite Democrats winning 53% of votes and seeing a negligible change in their total vote share since the previous election in 2008. However the Supreme Court rules, it will have a significant impact on American politics, especially the 2018 congressional midterm elections. At stake is the possibility of a new legal standard for the next round of redistricting in 2021. A Supreme Court decision ruling that the Wisconsin voting districts were unconstitutionally drawn will change how voting districts are drawn across the US. On the other hand, if the Supreme Court upholds the legitimacy of Wisconsin’s excessively gerrymandered voting districts, it could encourage increased gerrymandering. It would also leave it up to individual states to pass measures limiting gerrymandering, like Arizona and California have done, to make electoral mapping more independent from partisan politics. The Supreme Court does not have the constitutional power to legislate, but the upcoming 2018 decision has the potential to restructure US politics by either upholding constituents’ rights to fair representation, or by allowing political gerrymandering to continue shaping US electoral outcomes.
Karen Ramirez has a political science background and is currently studying Swedish language and history. Having relocated from California, she is enjoying experiencing seasons for the first time as well as getting to know people from all over the world in her classes and activities.
Simon Dürr is currently studying computational enzymology as an exchange student. He has lived both in the outskirts of rural Germany on a small farm as well as in London and Montréal. His interests range from geopolitics, sustainability issues and technological innovations, to the chemistry of life. In his free time he is currently either exploring the Swedish outdoors or trying to bake the perfect kladdkaka.
Images: Simon Dürr, Elkanah Tisdale