By: Madhav Ramesh
What is Gerrymandering and why is it so essential to find a viable solution to resolve it?
Gerrymandering is not a newfound concept that has been concocted recently. It originated from Governor Elbridge Gerry in Massachusetts in the early 1800s when he passed a piece of legislation for the government to manipulate the boundaries of the voting districts such that the districts would get the majority of votes for that particular party. Gerry wanted to break the Federalist stronghold of the House of Representatives, so he manipulated the shapes of the district so that the votes would benefit the Democratic-Republicans. Because of this, Massachussetts sent three Democratic-Republican representatives out of the five total representatives for Massachusetts, despite the fact that all five positions were filled by Federalists the year before. Elkanah Tisdale, a satirical political cartoonist, compared the distortion of these districts to the shape of a salamander, which eventually led to the term “gerrymander”.
Gerrymandering directly affects how many representatives from a particular party can be sent to the House of Representatives. The way the districts are drawn is decided by the state government and the majority party can shift the shapes and sizes of the districts so that the voting leans heavily towards the state-controlled party, rather than the true voice of the state. On multiple occasions, the number of representatives representing the state in Congress did not even closely compare to the actual popular voting proportions of the entire state. For example, the state of Pennsylvania voted for the Democrats over the Republicans in 2012, in terms of total popular vote – 49% of the vote to be exact. However, the GOP won 72% of the seats in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans in the votes in the state, the Republicans gained a significant advantage in their party’s representation in Congress. The reasons behind this imbalance can be directly attributed to gerrymandering.
How exactly does gerrymandering work? Take North Carolina for example. The urban centers of North Carolina contain the most amount of Democrats, while the rest of the state consists of mostly Republicans. The majority of the population lives in the urban centers; however, through gerrymandering, the state’s districts push all the urban centers that contain the majority of Democrats in two districts through drawing peculiarly shaped districts. Because of this, nine of the twelve representative were Republicans, despite the entire state leaning toward Democrats. Some of the ways in which gerrymandering is done is not as concrete the elections in North Carolina. Sometimes, the majority party controlling the shapes of the districts can barely scrape a simple majority (not to the degree of North Carolina), as they do not have enough voters to win many seats in Congress.
There are two types of gerrymandering: packing and cracking. Packing refers to when parties try to “pack” as many of the like-minded voters into a voting district to create a majority. Cracking, on the other hand, refers to when the party spreads the voters out to dilute the majority in that state and create a permanent minority. Not only does this practice have a negative political impact, it also has other repercussions, like the oppression of minorities. Manipulating the percentage of certain types of voters that are in each district often happens where minority groups, like African Americans and immigrants, live. Despite legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prevented racial gerrymandering from occurring, due to the geographical nature of states, racial gerrymandering still does occur. In rare instances, gerrymandering can favor the minority groups. For example, groups like the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have attempted to push for redistricting that benefited African-Americans. Whether the gerrymandering favors the majority or the minority is unfair to the general voting body and this problem has to be fixed as soon as possible.
Either way, whether it is the majority or the minority groups getting favoritism in the district, makes the system of gerrymandering unfair and unrepresentative of the true voting results.
In his State of the Union address in early 2016, former President Barack Obama called for a change, stating, “If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president…We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it” (Obama, 2016). For the former President to highlight this in his State of the Union address indicates that this issue is of grave importance. There have been some proposed solutions to this issue. One solution is what the states of Washington, California, and Arizona are currently using. They have created an independent committee that decides on the boundaries of the districts. This allows the partisan bias that plagues the gerrymandered system we have today to disappear. However, solely having a group of individuals with no political affiliations does not completely fix the problem at hand. There are numerous regulations to balance populations and limited regulations for contiguity. There needs to be legislation to prevent the distortion of the shapes of the district, similar to that implemented by the Legislative Services Bureau of Iowa. Iowa ensures that all their districts are shaped like polygons. By standardizing the shapes of the districts, it further eliminates the chances of bias for a political affiliation to influence the representation in Congress. The best option that most countries use is simple proportional representation, as multiple other countries from Europe and around the world use this system and have proved more representative of the voting population. With proportional representation, the distribution of votes from the entire state would determine the percentage of representatives that are in Washington D.C.
Gerrymandering is a severe problem that needs to be dealt with. In the recent House of Representative elections, the Associated Press calculated that the GOP won 22 more seats than what the party should have, ensuring the Republicans to have a comfortable majority over the Democrats. However, this is not to say that the Republicans are the only ones to gerrymander, as both parties have manipulated the districts throughout the course of history. All individuals should be able to be equally represented and gerrymandering does not provide an accurate account of the voter’s voice. Once more people understand what gerrymandering is and its effects on the political system, there will be a call for change. Hopefully sooner than later.
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