As we get closer to Election Day in November, a term that will be constantly thrown about is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a term that is used to describe how states creatively decide Congressional and Legislative districts to keep a particular party or in some cases particular people in power. Congressional and legislative districts are drawn, in most cases, by each state legislature after a Census has been taken of the United States. There are not very many rules governing how states can draw up these districts. The legislatures who are in power after the Census can divvy up the state into their allotted number of Congressional districts. This leads to some states having creatively drawn maps and Congressional districts. The idea is to make Congressional districts as safe as possible while also taking power away from the out party to allow the in party to have the maximum amount of power. The term gerrymander came about because a state had the Congressional districts shaped like a salamander after one of these re-districting occurred.
What is and isn’t gerrymandering
One of the problems with identifying gerrymandering is the geographical locations of political parties. For the most part, those who identify as a member of the Democratic Party are more likely to live in urban areas or highly populated areas whereas those who identify as a member of the Republican Party are more likely to live in suburban and rural areas, or otherwise less popular areas. States that may look gerrymandered by the numbers may not look so when the map is involved. For instance, in Pennsylvania, the most heavily Democratic part of the state is in Philadelphia. The rest of the state is fairly divided with a Republican leaning. That’s exactly what we see when we look at the map. Ohio is another example of the same phenomenon. There is probably slight gerrymandering going on in those states but it’s not dramatically different.
The primary reason for gerrymandering is self-evident. Most of the time, state legislatures are trying to construct a system in which their party will have the most Congressional districts and other legislative districts in their favor. A Republican led legislature will try to make the state more advantageous for Republicans. Democratic led legislatures will try to make the state more advantageous for Democrats. There is at least one other reason for gerrymandering.
One of the more popular reasons to gerrymander districts is to load up a district for a popular politician to discourage them from running for a higher office. The best example of this is in Illinois. The Illinois legislature strengthened Representative Aaron Schock’s district to discourage the young Congressman from running for Senate or for Governor in later years. The idea behind this is that if the politician can continue to get re-elected, he or she may not want to risk his or her political clout with an unsuccessful campaign.
Effects of gerrymandering
The effects of gerrymandering are often overstated. Nate Cohn, now at The New York Times, estimates that the latest round of re-districting has given the Republican Party a 10 seat advantage in the House of Representatives. This is significantly more than zero but not nearly as big of an advantage that has been stated by some. Part of the problem with measuring the effects of gerrymandering is the geographical location of political parties that was mentioned above. The other difficulty is that while the districts may have been drawn for a particular party early on after the census, by the end of the decade the demographics of the district could have rapidly changed. While there may currently be a 10 seat advantage due to redistricting, this could fluctuate greatly by 2020.
Long-term effects of gerrymandering are more concerning to me. The biggest problem is the effect of gerrymandering on voting habits. Convincing someone to vote for the first time is extremely challenging. The studies in the political science literature indicate that people are more likely to vote if there is a competitive election. Gerrymandering ruins the competitiveness of elections. We, also, see the effect of less people voting. Political discussion leads to voting but voting also leads to political discussion. The idea is that if less people are voting then there will be less political discussion which will lead to even less people voting and round and round we go. Less political discussion will be felt because we need more people trying to find solutions and we need more ways of thinking about issues.
So, how do we go about fixing the issue of gerrymandering? Perhaps the simplest way to combat this problem is to take away the power of redistricting out of political hands. In the state of California, they have done just that. The state has an independent board that goes through and redistricts the state after the census. The board is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four members who are either decline to state or a member of another party. The commission holds public meetings and must take the public comments into account when drawing the lines for the districts. The commission has to draw bordering districts and follow nonpartisan rules when drawing up the district. The districts have to be voted on prior to going into effect. The map must be approved by at least three members of each political party on the commission and three from the declined to state members of the commission. The solution put out by California seems to be an easy fix although there are some notable detractors who believe that any changes in redistricting are plots to cement power.
Another solution that I have seen thrown about in conjunction with the idea of an independent commission is the establishment of minimum population guidelines for federal House districts. The idea is that federal districts could not be smaller than the population of states with at-large House representation. I would imagine that the idea would continue at the state level, determining that each legislative district for the state legislature would have their own population minimums to ensure that districts are not decimated on the way to build up other ones.