FBB Primer: Gerrymandering Explained

By John O. Sullivan

Political gerrymandering makes the incentive for most members of Congress to play to the extremes of their base rather than to the center.
-44th U.S. President Barack Obama

Rules define the way that elections are run. The Constitution, state and local laws, party regulations, and everything in-between regulate everything about elections. From candidate qualifications to voter restrictions to campaign finance laws, every aspect of an election is managed and regulated (or not) in some way or another. But without a doubt, the most important aspect of campaign regulations are the lines of our electoral districts. They determine where candidates can run and who voters can vote for. Unfortunately, the system in place in the United States is, generally speaking, highly susceptible to Gerrymandering, which is a massive threat to the strength of our democratic process.

“Gerrymandering” is the act of attempting to alter electoral districts to favor one group or disadvantage another group. Generally, the greatest signifier of gerrymandering districts are non-compact districts that lead to disproportionate results for one party.

There are two major, distinct, gerrymandering techniques, Packing and Cracking. Packing, which is what many people traditionally imagine as gerrymandering, is when those in charge of the electoral re-drawing puts as many members of a single group into one district as possible. This can be done to protect a minority group, essentially confining  them to a guaranteed elected official rather than spreading out their influence over several districts. Alternatively, it can be done to try and create a “wasted vote” effect; by packing as many members of a group into a single district as possible, the redistricting gives the redistricted group a single, guaranteed, “forfeit seat” when they may well have the numbers to win multiple seats.

The other style of gerrymandering is known as cracking. Cracking is essentially the reverse of packing, where a group of voters is split into many different electoral districts. This is generally used in an attempt to dilute the power of the group in question. For instance, by splitting a group of people that would constitute a majority of one district into a half-dozen different districts, they are unlikely to have any sort of measurable electoral impact due to the fact that they will be a distinct minority in each of the many new districts. Cracking can also be used to “divide and conquer,” by spreading a group’s power out of a small concentrated area into multiple districts with the intent of winning multiple seats.

For a more concrete example, take the images below. Imagine it as a densely packed urban area, primarily populated by one party, surrounded by a suburban area that is largely dominated by an opposing party. In the examples below, there are 25 total “precincts,” with 12 belonging to the pink party, and 13 belonging to the blue party (I didn’t have a red highlighter, sorry).


In this map, the lines are drawn in a “fair” way. The districts compact, as well as being predictable and uniform. These lines result in 3 Blue seats and 2 Pink seats, roughly what would be expected based on the population breakdown.


In this map, we assume the Pink party won an upset seat and controlled the next redistricting cycle. By a combination of packing and cracking, the Pink Party ensures they will have a good chance of winning 4 legislative seats to the Blue Party’s one, even though the Pink Party is in the minority.


In the final map, we see that it is just as easy for the Blue Party to turn the same situation to their own advantage. Using similar techniques, the Blue Party packed 5 Pink precincts into one district, while maintaining a 60% to 80% majority in all the other seats, flipping the legislature to a 4-1 advantage in their own favor, despite their slim population majority.

In the United States, we have a winner-takes-all, single winner, simple plurality form of Congressional elections. While this sounds complicated, in essence all it means is that the single candidate with the most votes at the end of the night is the winner. This does, however, make us much more susceptible to gerrymandering than some other systems, thanks to the wasted vote effect. In a winner-takes-all and single winner system (also known as First-Past-the-Post), a candidate only needs one more than half of the votes to win the election. Any votes above this half plus one threshold is essentially a wasted vote. The candidate doesn’t win any extra power, they don’t get more seats in Congress. In other words, there are no gold stars. A candidate gets just as elected with 50.1% of the vote as they do with 90% of the vote, creating the wasted votes.

A First-Past-the-Post system is far more susceptible to gerrymandering than other systems such as proportional representation, where each party receives their number of delegates based on how many people voted for them, so there are no wasted votes. For instance, Maryland, my home state and one of the country’s most gerrymandered states, has 7 Democratic representatives and 1 Republican in the House of Representatives. Based on party registration, under a proportional representation system, or even if the electoral districts were fairly drawn, Maryland might have 3 Republican and 5 Democratic representatives, a much more competitive split.

In addition, the United States is a two party system, which makes gerrymandering substantially easier. In a two-party system with a (roughly) 50-50 balance of power, even minor adjustments can dramatically alter the outcome of an election, and thusly the national balance of power. This creates great incentive to gerrymander whenever possible. Coincidentally, most of the redistricting in the United States is controlled by partisan groups.

In 29 out of 50 (58%) states, one political party unilaterally controls the redistricting of the state legislature. In 24 of 43 (56%) states with more than one House Representative, the congressional redistricting process is controlled unilaterally with by one political party.

Building on the above, these groups, which have huge incentive to gerrymander, also regrettably have the power to do so, which is not a good situation by any means. Increasingly, the makeup of state delegations to congress are swinging more and more steeply to one party or the other, a fact less representative of demographic changes than it is of redistricting changes. The amazing ability of incumbents to be reelected is also symptomatic of the country’s rampant gerrymandering. As districts are made more and more safe for particular parties, the seats that represent them tend to be held by the same people for extended periods of time, unless that person loses in a primary fight, which is rare.

Analysis bears out that not only is partisan gerrymandering a hypothetical risk, it is a reality. Detailed analysis by the Associated Press concluded that the GOP won 22 more House seats than would have been expected without gerrymandering. A similar study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that AT LEAST 16 seats gained by the GOP between 2012 and 2016 were due to gerrymandering, and most of those from a select few states.

These states; Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia, were the target of a 2010 Republican strategy known as REDMAP. This plan had the explicit objective of dumping money, airtime, and resources into those select states with the hopes of winning governorships Republican majorities in the state legislatures. This was with the ultimate aim of putting various state level Republicans in charge of the redistricting process after the 2010 census, allowing Republicans to swing a large number of House and state legislature seats in their favor.

This steep gerrymandering has led to several court challenges, not just in Republican-controlled states, but in deep blue states as well. While drawing district lines on such factors as race or ethnicity is illegal, drawing them based on politics is not clearly laid out as such, which has left significant legal grey area for the courts to navigate. In one such case, Republicans are suing parties involved in Maryland’s redistricting process, claiming it was politically motivated, and so far, the courts are agreeing.

However, court interventions can sometimes take years, and rulings are often narrowly composed. In the words of my former professor, “The Supreme Court will do everything in its power to avoid answering a Constitutional question.”

So how can gerrymandering be fixed? There are a few readily available options, some better than others. They include, bipartisan committees, politically independent commissions, mathematical formulas, and complete constitutional overhaul.

The first, and easiest solution is a bi-partisan committee, which runs the risk of creating proportional representation, but also runs the risk of creating very safe seats, designed by incumbents to protect their personal position.

The next solution, politically independent commissions, is the idea that a commission of independent statisticians, mathematicians, and political professionals would draw new electoral lines on behalf of the states, though this too runs the risk of bias and partisan loyalty. Besides, how much power do we really want to give to a bunch of liberal coastal educated elites?

The mathematical formulas option takes many forms, but the most common is the “shortest line rule.” In short, the shortest line possible to divide the electorate in even halves is drawn, and then successive lines are drawn from there until the correct number of districts are drawn. While this has the benefit of being both transparent and impartial, it could still fall prey to chance randomness and accidentally create very skewed districts.

Finally, the nuclear option, a complete electoral overhaul. If the United States switched to a proportional representation system, a lot of things would change. Instead of voting for a particular candidate, you would vote for a party, and then your state’s delegation to the House of Representatives would be split up by party, with each receiving a number of delegates as closely representative as possible to the number of votes received. Not only would this ensure fair representation and eliminate gerrymandering, it would create more competitive elections and eliminate the wasted vote effect. Even more, it would allow for the political tenability of alternate parties and it may even encourage greater voter turnout rates. This, suffice it to say, would be in many ways an upgrade to our current system. However, there are costs associated. Firstly, the nation as a whole would have to give up the idea of voting for “your” candidate, someone that specifically represents you and your community. It would also (presumably) substantially increase the power of political parties, and decrease the power of individual representatives. Also, it would require a major overhaul of the U.S. Constitution, something that is extraordinarily rare. The last time the Constitution was changed so suddenly was the ratification of the bill of rights in 1791, more than 200 years ago. These kinds of things are extraordinarily rare and terrifically difficult, and therefore highly unlikely to happen.

None of these options are perfect. Each comes with its own benefits, some less so than others, and each comes with its own costs, some more so than others. But regardless, something needs to be done. The state of the electoral districts in the country is rapidly spiraling out of control, and nothing could be more important to the success of American democracy and the fairness of our elections. While Constitutional revision to totally revolutionize the electoral system would solve a wide variety of problems beyond even the struggles of gerrymandering, it is purely a pipe dream, and even at that it is a pipe dream that I’m not even sure I support. It would fundamentally change the American system, and that isn’t something to be taken lightly. At this point in time, the best solution appears to be a non-partisan commission to re-draw all congressional districts after the next Census, although even this is not likely to come to fruition. The temptation for political parties to control the balance of power is simply too great to resist for partisan actors.

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