How does a party with a minority of votes get a majority of seats in a legislature? Is that how democracy is supposed to work?
The population is counted every ten years and then states re-draw the lines for voting districts. The trouble begins when the state legislature draws lines that favor one political party over another. This partisan gerrymandering affects Congress, and state governments too. My home state of New Jersey went from 13 seats in the House down to 12 after the 2010 census, forcing a re-drawing of the lines. This affects all but four states.
Four states cannot be gerrymandered in Congress because they have only one congressional district (The Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana). The other 46 can. And do they.
Gerrymandering is not new!
In the 1790s, a Massachusetts representative (and later Vice President under James Madison) Eldbridge Gerry drew a state election district for himself that was mocked for resembling a salamander, and the term "gerrymander" was born. The founders understood that manipulating election district lines could solidify power. James Madison's Federalist #53 explains. A century and a half later, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr that the federal courts had the power to supervise and even invalidate state-drawn election districts.
That was not a partisan issue but it did set a precedent for today's debate, a Supreme Court case called Gill vs. Whitford. First we'll see just how easy it is to gerrymander.
Let's have some DIY gerrymandering
A picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a visual depiction of gerrymandering. Imagine an American city with 400,000 Democrats (mainly in the city center) and 320,000 Republicans (dominating the suburbs). Your job is to divide the city into four voting districts with six neighborhoods, see below. Each of the neighborhoods are represented by three letters. Can you draw the district lines so that Republicans are favored? How would you draw the lines to favor Democrats?
RRR RDR RDR RDR
DRD DRD DRD DRD
DRD DDD DDD RDR
DRD DDD DDD DRD
RDR DRD DRD RDR
RRR DRD DRD RRR
Here are two potential ways to do it:
In the top one you see that the Democrats are "packed" into one voting district in the city center. With Democrats confined to one district, Republicans win three out of four despite having fewer voters overall.
In the second map, Republicans have been "cracked," that is, their strength has been diluted or spread out over all four districts so that Democrats will win in each one.
You can see how easy it is to get the results that you want. But we don't need fancy algorithms to ask the big question: How to do justice to the Constitution and the founders' intentions and maintain the integrity of the process?
Supreme Court poised to decide what's fair
Gill vs. Whitford is being litigated in the Supreme Court. In a nutshell: Wisconsin Republicans gained power in the state legislature in 2010 and re-drew Wisconsin's lines to "pack and crack" the Democrats with gerrymandering. So, will the Supreme Court strike down Wisconsin's district lines as unconstitutional, or uphold them? Either way, the consequences are far-reaching. If the Supreme Court upholds Wisconsin's lines, look for more states to gerrymander after the 2020 census. And if the Court strikes down Wisconsin's lines, look for more lawsuits and court battles between the parties in other states.
The Court's oral arguments began with the question of whether this is even an issue for the judicial system to rule on. The ruling will come in June.
At the History Dr, we say yes. Why?
Congress is dysfunctional
America needs competitive elections and a truly functioning two-party system, just as a courtroom trial requires both sides to find the truth. When one party automatically wins a district, opposing parties and candidates don't even try. Money for challengers dries up because that candidate automatically has no chance. Incumbents in gerrymandered districts come to the legislature with no reason to compromise with anyone because their seats are "safe." When the challenges to a Congressional seat come not from the opposition but from within their own party, that's a problem.
So partisanship intensifies. Congress can't function with one-party rule. We're witnessing a system in which the ruling party cannot even unify itself. And a dysfunctional Congress in which the two parties don't engage and the ruling party is torn apart is not what the founders intended.
If you are as concerned about political polarization as me, I invite you to learn further about gerrymandering. American elections must be fair and open, where everyone honors the outcome. The losers accept the role of loyal opposition, while those in power respect and include that minority in crafting legislation. It saddens me that neither of those two things is currently happening. My conclusion is clear: Gerrymandering accelerates political polarization. It's a tough case because if the Supreme Court rules against Wisconsin, the state would have to come up with another system that meets whatever standard the Court mandates.
The next census is in three years.
Check out this good treatment of gerrymandering
P.S: In case you are VERY interested, here is a fantastic simulation game of re-districting. It's from the Annenberg Center. Comments welcome.
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