In 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry agreed to a redistricting of Massachusetts state senate districts, because it favored his Democratic-Republican party, over their Federalist opponents. A Boston artist named Elkanah Tisdale drew a political cartoon in which he added fangs and claws to a rendering of shape of one of the new districts, and created, not a salamander, but a Gerrymander. Probably not his idea either; it was probably thought up by a Federalist newspaper editor named Nathan Hale. (Not the ‘I have but one life to give me my country’ guy; different dude entirely).
Anyway, it was a clever cartoon and a clever coinage, and the word has stuck around. Thus: Gerrymander, “to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan advantaged districts.” Thanks to Wikipedia for a nifty definition there.
In the last election, it’s often stated categorically that Republicans kept the House entirely because of gerrymandering. And to be fair, there are some really ugly districts out there. We’ve all seen ’em, these bizarre Rorschach-test-looking monstrosities. It’s said by some (like me, yesterday), that the specific House Republicans who caused this shut-down this week were able to do so without electoral consequence because they were in safe gerrymandered districts.
But is this true? I decided to do some independent research on this subject, with help from two of my favorite websites: 538.com and Wonkblog. I’m sure gerrymandering happens, and is destructive of the fundamental principle of one-man/one-vote. But redistricting is an immensely difficult task, and not all weirdly shaped districts are necessarily malevolent.
Here’s how it works. Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures. And obviously some states only have one member of the House of Representatives, only 3 electoral votes–specifically Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, Delaware and Vermont. And in 4 electoral vote states–Idaho, New Hampshire, Maine, Hawaii–there’s probably not a lot of gerrymandering that can happen. I live in Utah, and the Utah leg drew some fire from Democrats when they redrew district boundaries for the new 4th District. That was going to be Jim Matheson’s district; our one Democratic congressman, previously in the 2nd district, lived in the new 4th. Utah’s weird, though, in that most of the state is very very conservative, but Salt Lake City is very liberal. So the Utah 4th was drawn so as to dilute Salt Lake County with heavy doses of Utah County (very conservative). And it did work, sort of. Matheson’s seat had been contested in the past, but was fairly safe. But with a strong, bright Republican challenger named Mia Love, it looked like Matheson would be in trouble in 2012. But after an almost bizarrely ugly campaign, Matheson did win, by a tiny margin.
So basically the Utah leg tried to gerrymander Jim Matheson out of Congress. And failed. Maybe it will work next time he runs, in 2014. The point is that gerrymandering doesn’t always work.
Still, the Utah experience illustrates a problem that’s true in many states. Rural areas tend to be conservative, urban areas tend to be liberal. Which means that strong Democratic districts tend to be located in cities. Strong Republican districts tend to be geographically larger, more sparsely populated. It stands to reason that strictly geographically drawn districts could still be pretty safe. A nice, neat, square-ish urban district could have a very strong Democratic majority, while a nice, neat, rural district might be overwhelmingly safe for the Republican.
An excellent book by David Butler and Bruce Cain, called straightforwardly enough Congressional Redistricting lists the following fundamental redistricting principles:
1) Equalize district populations.
2) Respect compactness and contiguity.
3) Respect communities of shared interests.
4) Avoid diluting minority voting strength.
5) Create proportional representation, or at least, minimize seat/votes discrepancies.
I like that list. I think that’s a fair summation of the complexity of the redistricting process. And even a perfunctory look at this list shows how difficult that task is. These goals are contradictory. Suppose you want to ‘respect communities of shared interests.’ If you have, for example, a strong Catholic area in your state, you might want to respect that, allow a Catholic community its representation. But what if achieving that is impossible without diluting minority voting strength? Something’s probably going to have to give. You’ll have to determine which principle is the priority. And that’s something about which reasonable people can disagree.
Does gerrymandering create a partisan advantage? Eric McGhee and John Sides did a comprehensive study of this on Wonkblog. Their conclusion startled me. They concluded that gerrymandering gave Republicans a definite advantage in the 2012 election. But gerrymandering gave Democrats an advantage in 2008. Now, that probably does mean that the 2010 redistricting did favor Republicans. But they won the 2010 midterms. Elections have consequences.
In California, redistricting was done by a commission. That’s a good idea, and one that other states might want to emulate. Or we could suggest that gerrymandering is simply unconstitutional, and allow federal judges to overrule legislatures’ boundaries. That could work too. But it would require a Constitutional Amendment, and I don’t see one forthcoming. And such efforts might just complicate an already complicated task. I’m okay with complications. But our current situation, in which very few Congressional districts are actually all that competitive may be the best we can do.