Dear Civics Teacher,
Can you explain how gerrymandering works? What’s a fairer way to draw district lines, and who decides what system we have?
Sarah from Brooklyn
Your question comes at the perfect time! Gerrymandering has been a hot topic in news headlines recently, and the Supreme Court just heard arguments about this topic in an important case that might change the way we think of this issue.
Gerrymandering is an incredibly old practice, dating back to before the founding of the United States in Great Britain. Essentially, gerrymandering is a practice where one political group or party draws representative districts in a way that benefits their political group or party. In the U.S., this practice was named after Elbridge Gerry, one of our founding fathers from the state of Massachusetts. Gerry’s political party drew a legislative district so peculiar that it looked like a salamander, which is why the term is a mixture of Gerry and salamander.
The United States is a democratic republic, which means that all citizens should have some sort of political representation. The Declaration of Independence says that “governments derive their power from the consent of the governed,” and every citizen within this government is ‘the governed.’ Our Constitution sets up a legislative branch of government that guarantees representation for each state in a House of Representatives (if you live in a U.S. territory or the District of Columbia, this does not apply). In contrast to the Senate, the House of Representatives is commonly called “the People’s House” because members of this body represent smaller populations and have a better understanding of their respective districts – senators, on the other hand, represent not just a district but an entire state. Similarly, each state in the U.S. has some sort of state-level legislature or assembly that has representative districts for the citizens of their state.
Representation is the fundamental building block of the United States Government, and if you remember back to elementary school, a major grievance that led to the American Revolution was the lack of representation of the colonists in British Parliament. Without representation, we could not call ourselves a republic or a democracy, so it is important to have a way in which to give your consent, which comes through your vote, and then the vote of your representative.
What’s a fairer way to draw district lines? It might seem like drawing congressional and legislative districts in a grid-like pattern with equal population numbers might be the ideal way make districts fair, but people don’t live in grid-like patterns, and populations of people have different beliefs, norms, and values that may impact the type of representative that they desire to elect. An example of this might be ethnicity, race, culture, political party, economic class, urban/suburban/rural setting — the list goes on. As a result of the tricky nature of human populations, districts have to be drawn in each state. In most states, the political party in power draws the congressional and legislative districts. Congressional districts are drawn every ten years after a census is held, and whichever party happens to be in power at the time gets to draw their districts. It would be like whoever is near the oven when a cake finishes baking getting to cut the cake. Guess who would likely get the biggest and best piece of cake…
The two most common ways that gerrymandering occurs are through what we call “cracking” and “packing.” Cracking is when a representative district of one political party is broken up and pieces of it dissolve into districts held by the other political party. Imagine if you had a district where everyone is a Democrat, and you cracked it open and spread those Democrats out among several nearby districts where almost everyone is a Republican. While those Democrats previously would have elected a Democrat, now their votes will be drowned out in districts where they are a small minority. Packing is when as many people of one political persuasion are packed into one district, which keeps them from impacting surrounding districts of a different political persuasion – and giving those other districts additional political clout within the state. For example, if you took a heavily Democratic state and packed all its Republicans into one district, you’d end up with just one Republican district, while all the other districts would easily go to Democrats.
Gerrymandering has almost become an accepted reality in our nation, and it happens with both political parties. Who wouldn’t take the biggest piece of cake if they could? Racial gerrymandering, or gerrymandering based on race, is one practice that has explicitly been banned by the Supreme Court; however, partisan gerrymandering is a difficult practice to end. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that every person is entitled to one vote and that legislative and congressional districts should have relatively equal populations, but equal populations do not necessarily translate into districts with equal representation.
One potential solution to the problem of partisan gerrymandering might be found in a computer program that can measure what has been called the “efficiency gap.” The efficiency gap is a term for how many wasted votes there are in each state, which demonstrates the degree to which each state is gerrymandered. Any vote over the threshold needed for a majority is considered wasted (so in a district that’s been packed, you would have a lot of wasted votes). On October 3rd, the Supreme Court heard arguments that using the efficiency gap formula is the way to solving the problem of gerrymandering, and now we must wait and see what the court decides.
Dustin Hornbeck, who holds master’s degrees in American history and government and in education, taught history and government for nine years in several high schools in Ohio and was the James Madison Fellow for Ohio in 2014. He is currently a graduate assistant and doctoral student in educational policy at Miami University. Twitter: @dustinhornbeck