Gerrymandering: A New American Art Form
The democratic system of government is a complicated creature, one that is vulnerable to all sorts of attempts to create advantages for one side over another. Some groups may try to subtly influence the system, while in other cases the corruption is more obvious. The practice of gerrymandering falls into the latter category, and is a major factor in American politics.
The idea behind gerrymandering is that, every so often, government must create new voting districts and redraw old ones in response to demographic changes over time. As people move away from one area and into another, this can create inequalities in representation where voters in a less populated district will have a disproportionate amount of power. Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of the readjustment process for political advantage.
When the ruling party has the power over redistricting, they are able to draw up constituencies in a way that will maximize their electoral success. They identify groups of supporters and opponents and employ the strategies of cracking and packing to distribute them in a way that will wins them the most seats. Packing involves concentrating voters likely to support the opponent into a single electoral district in order to win other districts. Cracking is the opposite, where the lines are drawn in a way that spreads out a particular bloc of voters among several districts to try to prevent them from gaining a majority in any of them.
The concept of gerrymandering is certainly not exclusive to the United States, but one could say they have truly mastered the art.
Politicians there have come a long way since Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts first drew up an unusual ‘salamander’ like district in 1812 (hence ‘Gerry-mander’). In the United States, every ten years following the census state legislatures are responsible for re-drawing boundaries, which are then approved by the state governor. Historically, Republican legislatures in particular have taken advantage of gerrymandering to create minority-majority districts, packing minority voters (who’s votes lean heavily towards the Democratic Party) into safe Democratic districts while preserving a white majority in the surrounding districts.
There have been some truly inspired districts drawn up over the past few decades. They are sprawling, ink-blot like, and often barely contiguous, connected with ridiculously thin slivers of land. Some have compared Illinois’ infamous 4th congressional district to a pair of ear muffs, thanks to a redistricting that joined two predominantly Hispanic neighbourhoods on opposite sides of Chicago and connected them with a razor-thin corridor of land along Interstate 294. California’s 23rd congressional district once stretched along such a narrow strip of the Pacific coast that it was known as “the district that disappears at high tide.”
Needless to say, it’s a gross subversion of the democratic process. And yet, neither federal nor state law prohibit the practice. As international election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted diplomatically after the 2004 American Presidential Election: The absence of such a prohibition and the availability of increasingly sophisticated geographic databases, demonstrating voting history patterns and indicating likely voter intent, are widely seen as having an impact on the redistricting process…such a practice may have rendered a sizable proportion of the congressional races in these elections to be insufficiently competitive.
Despite all this, there are alternatives available. In countries such as Canada, the UK and Australia a relatively simple solution has involved the creation of non-partisan organizations in charge of allocating constituencies as opposed to elected lawmakers. In Canada, independent commissions are appointed every 10 years to study the country’s demographics and make changes to the proportioning. While even that formula isn’t perfect, as there are concerns about influence relating to the appointment process itself, it removes the institutionalized manipulation found in the current system.
The good news is that some states have already begun to move towards creating laws to prevent partisan manipulation of the redistricting process.
Iowa was one of the first to create an independent agency to draw up boundaries, with additional regulations to ensure districts are “reasonably compact in form.” More recently voters passed ballot initiatives in California and Florida to restrict gerrymandering (although in Florida it faces a lawsuit brought about by Republicans), and several other states have made efforts to create standing committees for redistricting. It should come as no surprise that politicians are reluctant to relinquish this power, but as long as voters keep up the pressure on them, someday such gerrymandering will be simply a curious footnote in American history.