The problem of gerrymandering

The principle of democracy is that electors get to choose their representatives. The principle of gerrymandering is that representatives get to choose their electors. This can lead to some absurd distortions. It is designed to do so.

Let us look at a few examples. First, let us dispose of one. A few weeks ago the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Texas Democrats against a mid-decade redistricting in that state. The argument was partly that redistricting should not take place mid-decade, that it ‘disenfranchised’ minority voters, but mostly that it cost the Democrats six seats they felt entitled to hold. It provoked what Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza called ‘a spin war of massive proportions’. It was controversial, but it was not, in any meaningful sense of the word, gerrymandering. In fact it was de-gerrymandering.

Under the principle that voters choose their representatives you would expect around 60% of Texas’s congressmen to be Republicans. This is a state which gave George W Bush 61% of its votes, a little more than the 59% won by GOP House candidates. It has 21 Republican congressmen, 64% of its House delegation. This compares to 47% under the previous boundaries, gerrymandered by the Democrats.

Texas could be considered New York state’s twin. (I will leave you to decide for yourself which one is evil). In New York it is the Democrats who win around 60% of the vote and the state has 31 congressmen, one less than Texas. But in Texas the minority party has 11 House seats and in New York it is just nine. In both states 12 or 13 would be the fairest number.

And what of Massachusetts, where Governor Elbridge Gerry first invented the invidious practice? There, the minority party – the Republicans with, again, around 40% of the vote – has been gerrymandered out of existence. I believe that Massachusetts is the largest state with a single party congressional delegation: all ten congressmen and both senators are Democrats.

The Republican Party, while innocent in Texas and the victim in both New York and Massachusetts, is far from innocent overall. The famously close state of Ohio has 12 Republicans and just six Democrats in its House delegation. There is no way this reflects the even balance of the state. Pennsylvania, another knife-edge state, has 12 Republicans and seven Democrats. Florida has 18 Republicans and seven Democrats. Ohio shortchanges the Democrats by two House seats, Pennsylvania by three and Florida by four.

In California – shortchanging the Republicans by two – the main aim of the last redistricting was to reinforce all incumbents, of both parties. The state had just one vaguely competitive election in 2004, where the (Democrat) incumbent had resigned under a cloud. No seats changed hands.

These twin evils, of using redistricting to shore up incumbents and using it to the benefit of the majority party are damaging American democracy. Both parties are equally to blame. Iowa has an independent commission to make redistricting decisions. But a state which Bush carried with a shade under 50% of the vote, also has a House delegation that is 80% Republican. A commission needs a brief. To broadly reflect the voting patterns of the state might be a good one. My favorite: to make 50% of the districts competitive.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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