Gerrymandering 101

Zombie has the first post up on a new series on “gerrymandering”, the drawing of artificial electoral district borders to maximize advantage for one political party.

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette newspaper on March 26, 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. … The term was a portmanteau of the governor’s last name and the word salamander.

[…]

The two aims of gerrymandering are to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes and to minimize the effect of opponents’ votes. One strategy, packing, is to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. … A second strategy, cracking, involves spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts in order to deny them a sufficiently large voting block in any particular district. The strategies are typically combined, creating a few “forfeit” seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure even greater representation for voters of another type.

Of course, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the GOP engaging in gerrymandering because of the way they swept state houses in the recent election.

When commentators blithely note that Republicans will have a “redistricting advantage” next year because of their dominance in state houses, they gloss over the ugly details of what that means. Few are willing to speak The G-Word, but Jonathan Chait at The New Republic takes the plunge:

2. Redistricting. If that’s not a problem enough for Democrats, it’s about to get a lot worse. Republicans had their wave election at a very convenient time, putting themselves in position to control numerous state legislatures and thus control the next round of redistricting, which will last a decade. Partisan gerrymandering can be an extremely powerful tool, and combined with the natural geographic gerrymander, can give Republicans an overwhelming advantage, if not quite an absolute lock.

The reason even most liberals are keeping mute about the horrors of the upcoming Republican gerrymandering is that Democrats have been the most ardent practitioners of it whenever they’ve had the slightest chance. You may have wondered how America overall tends to prefer conservative policies (pollsters like to say “We’re a center/right country”) yet we often have a liberal or at least Democratic majority in the Congress. How can this be? Gerrymandering. It’s so powerful that it has at times fundamentally altered the political slant of our government. Many of the worst gerrymandered districts illustrated in tomorrow’s Part II of this essay (“The Top Ten Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts in the United States” — don’t miss it!) are the handiwork of Democratic politicians, so the Democrats would have no leg to stand on if they were to now turn around and criticize the Republicans for doing what they’ve been doing for decades — centuries, even. The Republicans have done it too, of course, but in the majority of states in recent cycles, the Democrats have had the advantage, and they’ve not been ashamed to use it.

But that brings up a question of morality: Should the Republican class of 2010 continue the partisan cheating? Is turnabout fair play? Just because the Democrats have attempted to skew the national dialogue for decades, does that give the Republicans the right to do so now? And if your answer is “No,” then how can we possibly stop the practice? Because if the Republicans refrain from gerrymandering the 2010 census, then the Democrats’ pre-existing gerrymandering will remain in place, allowing them to remain over-represented in future elections, and when they regain power they’ll continue redistricting the country to their advantage, laughing at the Republicans for not having done the same when they had the chance.

Now how does gerrymandering work in practice? Zombie has some really nice illustrative graphics:

Sample population distribution: each symbol represents a voter in a generic state.
Option 1: A fair and evenhanded redistricting.

“In the illustration to the left you see a schematized state. The new census shows that it has 15 inhabitants, scattered equally throughout the territory; 9 of them are consistent voters for the “redstar” party, represented by red stars; 6 of them are “greendot” party voters, represented by green dots. The time has come for redistricting, and your job is to carve up the state into three congressional districts each containing exactly five voters. What do you do?

“Option 1: Well, a 9-to-6 split in the electorate means that the state is 60% redstar and 40% greendot. So if your goal was to be as fair and evenhanded as possible, you’d draw the district lines as shown in the illustration at the upper right: you’d end up with two districts which were majority redstar, and one district that was majority greendot, and thus the voters of the state overall would get fairly true representation of their political views in congress. (In this example, District 1 would have a 3-to-2 redstar majority, District 2 would have a 3-to-2 greendot majority, and District 3 would have a 4-to-1 redstar majority.)

But what if you were a partisan redstar politician? Your goal would not be to have fair redistricting; your goal would be to shut out your opponents as ruthlessly as possible. And thus we turn to the next possibility: Majority gerrymandering.

Option 2: Majority gerrymandering to ensure complete electoral dominance.

 

 

Option 3: Gerrymandering designed to ensure over-representation for the smaller party.

 

 

“Option 2: If your goal was to ensure that your redstar party won as many seats as possible in upcoming elections, you’d strive to create districts in which redstar voters had a slim majority in every single district. So you could gerrymander the boundaries to look like they do in the illustration at the lower left. In this example, each and every district has been purposely designed to have a 3-to-2 redstar majority, and the end result would be that all three districts would elect redstar representatives, and the 40% of the population who are greendot voters would be disenfranchised — no elected official would represent their views.

And lastly: What if you were an incumbent greendot politician looking at the new census map aghast, noting that demographic shifts had now given the opposition redstar party a 60/40 advantage among voters. What would you do? More precisely, what would you do if you were really really evil, like the typical politician? Why, you’d resort to the most diabolical form of redistricting, Minority Gerrymandering:

“Option 3: Behold the horrors of what gerrymandering can do. In this final option, shown in the lower right illustration, the greendot party, despite having only 40% of the vote, has managed to draw the districting lines in such a way that they end up with a two-to-one advantage in congress! The greendot redistricters achieved this feat by shunting as many redstar voters as possible into a lopsided “electoral ghetto,” in which District 3 has a solid 5-0 redstar majority; this soaks up and wastes most of the redstar voting power, leaving the greendot party with a 3-to-2 advantage in Districts 1 and 2.

“Clear? This is gerrymandering in a nutshell. And once you’ve mastered it, you’re ready to become a politician and thwart the will of the voters”.

(S)he continues:

And don’t assume that if you discovered a district that is, say, 85% Republican, then you have strong evidence of Republican gerrymandering. Quite the opposite. Such districts are almost always the handiwork of Democratic redistricters trying to cram as many opposition voters together as possible, an example of the practice known as “packing”:

The two aims of gerrymandering are to maximize the effect of supporters’ votes and to minimize the effect of opponents’ votes. One strategy, packing, is to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. … A second strategy, cracking, involves spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts in order to deny them a sufficiently large voting block in any particular district. The strategies are typically combined, creating a few “forfeit” seats for packed voters of one type in order to secure even greater representation for voters of another type.

But these gerrymandering strategies can backfire — as they did in 2010, spectacularly. Which explains how the Republicans managed to win so many seats in a nation significantly gerrymandered by Democrats. What happened is this: Over the years, Democrats in many states created many congressional districts in which they diluted Republican voters to approximately 45% of the electorate, thinking this a safe margin for Democratic politicians to win every future election. But in a “wave year,” enough disgusted swing voters abandon the party in power and (at least temporarily) switch allegiances, and suddenly the 45%-and-no-more squandered Republican vote climbs over the 50% mark. Boom. Gerrymandering has blown up in the politicians’ faces.