Photo: Jay Styles.com

Gerrymandering

Staying Inside the Lines is Easy When You Draw Them Yourself 

In a Nutshell

Christian Lauritzen

January 22nd, 2017


With the seemingly heightening sense of partisanship and divisiveness due to the 2016 election and the subsequent scandal, it is easy, especially as someone who is emotionally charged and invested in politics, to see the other party as an almost evil figure who threatens your very way of living. They threaten progress, or they threaten your rights, or they threaten the economy, or they threaten one of the other million things that directly or indirectly pertains to your life. But at the end of the day, that’s democracy. The candidate who wins more votes will represent you and your community and generally support the majority of Americans. But is that still true?

 

How Gerrymandering Works

It is common knowledge that representatives are elected by the people of a pre-established area to represent said area. For example, Representative Andy Barr was elected to serve the people of Lexington, Frankfort, and North Eastern Kentucky in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district in the US House of Representatives, while in the Senate, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand jointly represent the people of New York. Since state lines are pre-established, senators rarely face this issue. However, in the House, where each state has delegates apportioned by population, they need to draw district lines to determine what area of people elects a representative.

Now of course, the entire country isn’t a homogenous mix of people from both parties; people from different parties tend to group up and populate certain areas. It is the state legislature’s responsibility to determine these borders as well as who falls into each district. So every decade when the census is collected, the legislature convenes to draw the districts. Some do it through a nonpartisan committee, others through a simple legislative vote, and some even do it through popular referendum. However, it always leads to the same result (with the exception of small states like Montana): strangely jagged lines and some bizarre borders.

 

Why is this an Issue?

Some may think these strange lines are just how it happens to turn out with population distribution, but the actual situation is far worse. While it may seem like just drawing lines can’t influence elections that much, it actually poses a significant threat. District lines can be drawn in complicated ways to distribute a potential majority across a bunch of districts to saturate their power, or you can put them all in one district and ensure the members of one party fall to the other.

 

A process that should be decided by a nonpartisan committee, or even better, a computer, is instead often done by a partisan state legislature who has very clear motivations to reduce the electoral strength of the other party. This can lead to cases like the Wisconsin election of 2012, where Republicans won 48.6% of the vote yet came out with 60 of their 99 seats in the lower house, or in Illinois, where Democrats won 50.5% of the vote in 2014 yet came out with 60% of the seats. While both extreme examples, the Republican party was able to gain power of the house with a minority of the vote, and the Democratic party was able to balloon a tiny advantage into a dominating control, all because they barely won the election in 2010. A system where the minority rules is blatantly undemocratic and a threat to the voice of the people.

 

But the country is pretty evenly split Democrat-Republican, so this has to all balance out on the national level, right?  Wrong. In the 2010 election for the US House of Representatives, Republicans were able to successfully turn a 60-36 Democrat advantage in total state legislatures into a 57-39 Republican advantage, and while perhaps a fair and free election, this set the stage for events like the 2012 Wisconsin election where Democrats (in many cases) win a majority, but because of sweeping Republican gains in a massively consequential year, they are locked out of their legislative majority.  With absolute control over 25 state legislatures and at least one house in 8 states, this gives them massive influence when it comes to deciding who votes where and for whom.

 

Where does the Future Lead?

With the rise of computers, those in charge of drawing districts were given a very powerful tool in being able to analyze data on which voters live where, making gerrymandering that much more of an issue as they can draw these lines more accurately than ever.  But the time has come for this harmful, undemocratic, power-grabbing exercise to end.  Redistricting done by an unbiased computer would ensure that our representatives most directly represent our votes.

 

With no bias based on party, the way we elect our representatives can be decided fairly with no preference given to which party won at the beginning of each decade. This toxic practice of deciding where and how voters vote can be ended if enough people realize the practice is corrupt and begin to demand fair elections. 2020 will be an important year.  President Donald Trump will be up for re-election, Republicans could potentially control two-thirds of state legislatures, and Democrats risk losing any hope of regaining state and national House seats to highly accurate computer drawings made by power-hungry politicians.  Regardless of your political affiliation, a one-party state defying the will of the people cannot and will not stand.  Gerrymandering must end to preserve American democracy.