Volume 15: Gerrymandering

The Praying Mantis and Upside-Down Elephant

“It is the duty of every man, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.” – Elbridge Gerry


Gerrymandering has been around a long time. Controlling election maps is always a form of power. The term was coined in 1812. But in recent decades it has moved to the forefront in U.S. elections. What once was an art form is now a science – with profound implications for how our government is run.

It is easy to go blissfully through life, never thinking about the shape of the Congressional district you live in. But that shape determines your Representative, who makes all those critical decisions about your life. Even worse, you care about all the other districts: a Congressman from another state gets one vote on each bill, the same as yours. Who drew the lines for their district?

When politicians get to decide their own electorate, the possibility for conflict is obvious. Politics is a game of power, those who have it and those who want it. But we can hope that this power is used, at least occasionally, to fulfill the wishes of the people and improve their lives. Manipulating maps prevents citizens from having real input in the way they are governed.

  • What is gerrymandering?

  • How has it changed in the last twenty years?

  • How is this possibly legal?


What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing district lines via any non-algorithmic process.[1] A gerrymander is the result of such a process. It takes just two ingredients to ensure gerrymandering: district-based representation and discretion in creating said districts. Any jurisdiction which has these two features will have discretion in the drawing of lines. Humans will impart their preferences when they do this drawing.[2]

Let’s go through a few examples, to see what is and is not gerrymandering:

  • In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons consists of 650 seats, each held by a single Member representing a specific geographic area. Each of these is drawn by a non-partisan Boundary Commission. This is gerrymandering.

  • The French legislature has the virtually unlimited ability to draw its own maps for single-representative districts. This is gerrymandering.

  • The United States Senate consists of two members from each State, whose boundaries are fixed.[3] This is not gerrymandering.

  • Israel elects 120 members to its parliament, the Knesset, based on nationwide proportional voting. In other words, if Party X receives 25% of the votes, it will receive 30 seats. This is not gerrymandering.

The original "Gerry-mander"

There is no right or “fair” way to draw district lines. As an example, consider a “state” with 60 Orange Party voters and 40 Purple Party voters, to be split into 10 districts. We could put 6 Orange and 4 Purple in each district, so each is similar to the overall population. But then the Orange Party would win all 10 seats, so that’s not representative.[4] There could be 6 districts of all Orange voters to go with 4 of all Purple, but then not a single seat will be competitive. You can split them up geographically, but how exactly? Put yourself in the seat of the decision maker and it is not at all simple.

When writing about gerrymandering, it seems to be obligatory to mention where the word comes from. Elbridge Gerry was the Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when his party, the Republicans, took control of the state house.[5] They took this chance to draw state legislature districts to maximize their advantage. To do this, one seat in the Northeastern part of the state had a particularly odd shape. A local political cartoonist thought the district looked a bit like a salamander, and the portmanteau is still active 200 years later.[6]

It is interesting to look at other countries’ line-drawing methods, but we’ll have enough to do focusing on the U.S. House of Representatives. As a quick refresher: every ten years the U.S. does a census. Based on this, 435 House seats are split up between the states. States that gain or lose a seat will obviously have to create a new map. Other states also move their lines due to internal changes in population density. Helpfully, the U.S. Constitution tells states almost nothing about how to draw Congressional districts. It wasn’t until 1963 that the Supreme Court even clarified that districts must have roughly the same population.[7] The paragons of virtue who inhabit our nation’s fifty statehouses have been quite creative in deciding how they should gerrymander.[8]

The Maryland 3rd

We can use Ohio as an example of the redistricting process. Like 36 other states, Ohio’s Congressional map is created by its state legislature, the Ohio General Assembly. Both houses of the Assembly must agree on a map, which can then be vetoed by the Governor.[9] A party controlling both houses and the Governor’s Mansion can therefore do pretty much what it wants in Ohio. Republicans held the so-called “trifecta” in 2012. The map they created has 12 safe GOP seats of 16 total, despite the GOP winning just 51% of the total 2012 Congressional vote.[10] If a state is unable to agree on a map, either because of split control of the state government or dysfunction within a single party, generally a court is designated to impose its own map. This gives an incentive for the various stakeholders to compromise.[11]

There are six states that draw Congressional maps outside of their legislatures.[12] In these states, a commission of some sort decides the lines. The goal of redistricting commissions is to make the process less partisan and they have been largely successful. Most of these commissions were created via a citizen referendum process; in other words, legislators usually don’t voluntarily give up their map-drawing power.[13]

There is one more wrinkle in redistricting, but it’s a big one: The Voting Rights Act. Prior to its passage by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, equal protection of voting rights, theoretically guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, had no way to be enforced by Congress.[14] The VRA tried to remedy this in various ways, but today we care mostly about Section 2.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act says that election maps are not permitted to dilute the voting power of minorities. What this means in practice is complex, as the courts continue to