Adventures in Democracy: Beware the Gerrymander

The Gerrymander can only be defeated using a vorpal sword. Wonks, take note.


This post is probably the first of several concerning policy and science, largely because policy is a career area that I have been exploring lately, but also because I’ve been interested in how science shapes policy (and vice versa) since my days as an undergraduate.  At the time I was very focused on education policy related to the teaching of evolution, but recently I have been branching out a bit more in order to better understand the basics of our governmental system.  The current topic is: tah-dah! – Gerrymandering!  This was inspired by attendance at a meeting for the Science Policy Initiative group at MIT.

Standard disclaimer: I am not an expert in this field, and will undoubtedly overlook or misinterpret some of the nuances – I provide links that I recommend you follow if you are interested in learning more about gerrymandering from expert (more so than me) sources.

Gerrymandering is a means of dividing the constituencies of a state into districts in order to grant an electoral advantage to one political party over another.    Take a moment to consider what this means – if the political party in power gets to draw these lines, then it controls who gets the better odds for staying in power.  Hint: it’s not going to favor the opposing party.  Sarcasm aside, this represents a persistent challenge to the democratic process.

The term ‘gerrymandering’ originates from the historical origins of the practice, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry created particularly abstract-looking district boundaries in his state in order to secure representation for his party.  The resulting district was so convoluted that it was said by the opposing party to resemble a mythical monster, which was dubbed the ‘Gerrymander,’ (a portmanteau of Gerry and salamander) and the description stuck.   The strange looking district boundaries created by gerrymandering allow a party to gain an advantage by effectively tucking away most of the opposing parties’ supporters into a couple of districts, apportioning an even and small majority of their own supporters in as many districts as possible.  This creates a situation in which, even if the popular vote in the state supports the opponents’ party, the gerrymandering party can end up with a larger share of representation in the district-based representation system.   Perhaps the best short-hand explanation for this that I have found is this graphic from a Washington Post article.

So what is the impact of gerrymandering, and is it good or bad for the democratic process?  Conventional wisdom would tend to veer toward a negative portrayal of gerrymandering, as control of state legislation by one party can allow reapportioning of districts in a way that unfairly favors that party relative to the popular vote.  There is also the argument that, when given a “safe” district behind them, representatives can feel obliged to firmly toe the party line, leading to more extreme partisanship on both sides.  But how rampant is gerrymandering, and how much has it twisted the democratic process in the US?  A review in Politico Magazine challenges the idea that gerrymandering is as polarizing a problem as some would portray it to be, although the authors don’t dispute that the process of redistricting needs to be re-examined and perhaps re-tooled.  John Sides, one of the authors in the above review, goes into the political science of polarization in more detail, with an illuminating graphic showing that any single representative is more faithful to his or her party line than to the expressed opinions of the constituency (Sides uses district votes in the 2008 presidential election as a benchmark).   So, given that redistricting can potentially violate the democratic process and create unfair advantages, and given also that party representatives are going to cast their votes based on the party line rather than the ideals of their constituency how do we ensure that voters get fair representation?  One thing that can be changed (and indeed, constantly is changing) is the way that we choose to conduct the decennial re-drawing of the districts.

The fairest method would appear to be to draw districts based on a representative distribution, that is, to create voting districts that have the best chance of resulting in representation that reflects the popular vote in the state.  In other words, if a state is 60/40 Republican/Democrat and holds three seats, 2 of the three seats should go to Republican representatives.   There are some issues raised by this tactic, however, one of which is that this method creates “safe” seats in the House, which again has been cited as a potential source of political polarization.  Additionally, the single winner in each district would represent only a portion of the population; the remaining portion would essentially be casting their votes into the wind as their participation would arguably have no effect on the election outcome.

Another pressing concern is that of equal representation for minority groups.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was meant to ensure that fair representation is granted to all minorities; honoring the Act has resulted in some improbable-looking districts being created, particularly in southern states.  Ideally, this would keep representation in balance.  In some cases, however, honoring the letter of the law can actually end up creating an overall advantage for a party line that does not fit well with the ideals of the minority population in the state (North Carolina’s uneven balance between democrat and republican representatives is one of the best examples of this).  Note – North Carolina has since had to redraw its districts, including the infamous 12th.  RIP.

In summary; our democracy promises everyone a vote – but our current methods of redistricting leads to “safe seats” in the House, and that undercuts the promise of equal representation for voters in those districts.  Minorities and women continue to be under-represented.    Are there better ways to address this issue?  There are some groups working on alternatives to the current practices, including FairVote, an organization that seeks to rethink the entire democratic process to produce fair representation.  Others have proposed less extreme overhauls, which leave the redistricting process in place but put it in the hands of a third (non-political) party.  Some states have recognized the need for change and have reforms on the ballot to place redistricting in the hands of non-partisan committees.

If you’d like to learn more about gerrymandering, redistricting, and the suggested reforms related to both, Justin Levitt (Professor of Law at Loyola, currently at the US DoJ) has what is probably the most informative site possible on redistricting.