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: 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.



2 thoughts on “Gerrymandering

  1. Jonathan Langford

    With respect to #4, there’s also the problem that concentrating minority voting strength can have the effect of reducing the number of districts in which a minority or minority-representing candidate can compete with a hope to win. Which is better for African Americans: one district with a 65% African American vote, or 2 districts with a 50% African American vote? (I don’t know if that was the case in any specific districts in 2010, but it’s the kind of thing that it seems to me *could* happen.)

    I like the idea of nonpartisan commissions. Judicial oversight, not so much. For one thing, as you pointed out, redistricting is complex, and judges have no special qualifications for solving the problems involved. Second, I worry that the more political tasks we give to the judiciary, the more we endanger the trust we’ve been able to maintain in them as mostly nonpartisan. Third, I don’t like the “save-us-from-ourselves” approach to representative government. I elect my representative to make hard decisions, dang it; that’s their job. (A nonpartisan commission doesn’t bother me on this account, because it seems to me like a nonpartisan solution arrived at in a political context, as opposed to an abdication of responsibility.)

  2. starbugary

    I like the idea of having non partisan commissions decide the district boundaries. The California model. I would be curious to see how well it has worked out there and how popular. unpopular it is. California has such a diverse population that it seems like the needs and desires of many differing communities would have been considered when drawing up districts.

    I also liked your statement “elections have consequences” yes they do, how do we convince the current Tea Partiers in DC of this? My life, my entire families life has been thrown into a tail spin over the government shutdown. My husband was furloughed and going a week or two without a paycheck is devastating for us. I watch the news and read a lot and all I see are Tea Party Republicans cheering and smiling, making absurd statements of how this is no big deal.

    They claim this is about the ACA and their desire to defund it even though it is a law and is much more complicated to “defund”, just like it is not simple, deliberately not simple, to defund something like “Social Security” the same goes for the ACA. The ACA also went through the entire legislative process and became a law by being voted on by both the House and Senate, signed into law by a sitting President…and even went through being vetted by the Supreme Court. It was a hot topic during the election and we had one choice who said he’d “Repeal and Replace” in fact I think he said he’d repeal it on his first day in office. The other choice said he would uphold the law, we voted for the pro ACA guy…Elections have consequences, why can’t they accept this?

    I even feel sorry for regular Republicans as I feel that their party has been hijacked by extremists who are bent on destruction. They seem to just want to burn the place down. I saw a Republican Congressman from Texas on the news tonight yelling at a Park Ranger for standing guard by the barricade at the WWII monument. He told her that she should be ashamed, that the Park Service should be ashamed for closing the monument! The guy who voted to close the government, the guy who did have a say in the matter is telling someone who didn’t, who is just doing their job, that she should be ashamed of what he did? IT makes no sense and I could go on and on with examples of this disconnect. If this is what Gerrymandering gets us, and what it leaves us stuck with then anything to make it go away and change for the better should be done!

    I think our political system is a good one, when it works properly and everyone is represented. I think districts should represent the people who live in them, not just small minorities. I feel like especially with the House the minority is being represented more than the majority, possibly because of Gerrymandering, possibly because not as many people vote in mid term elections. Something seems terribly off though, I read that Democrats received close to two million more votes than Republicans in the 2012 elections but due to gerrymandering they still didn’t pick up more seats…if this is true then the system needs revision, something to make things more fair and election results to actually reflect the person who got the most votes!


Leave a Reply