Legislative redistricting, the redrawing of political boundaries every ten years to match the population, often includes some gerrymandering—loopy, lopsided, and lurching districts that entrench the political power of a given official, party, or special interest.
Dating back to the eighteenth century, gerrymandering is a greatly abused practice that political parties often use together. Bipartisan gerrymandering colludes against grassroots candidates or third parties, creating "safe districts" to protect incumbents. Racial gerrymandering is used to weaken, or strengthen, the political power of minority voters.
The above graphic from Washington Post illustrates how gerrymandering can be used to create unfair and sprawling districts, resulting in some of America's Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts. As Christopher Ingraham recently reported, America would look very different without gerrymandering.
Republican Redistricting Strategy Creates Partisan Imbalance
In 2010, the conservative far-right Republican State Leadership Committee (budget $40 million) announced a victory: the GOP had flipped at least 19 legislative bodies to Republican control and won majorities in 10 of the 15 states where the legislature would redraw redistricting maps. Their website stated:
Republicans have an opportunity to create 20–25 new Republican Congressional Districts through the redistricting process over the next five election cycles, solidifying a Republican House majority.
Supporters of their Redistricting Project included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Justice Partnership, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Devon Energy, AT&T, and the tobacco company Reynolds American. A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Karl Rove describes the group’s strategy to lock in permanent GOP control of Congress.
The result of this strategy was that in 2012 Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives—yet Republicans won control of the chamber by 234 to 201.
- In Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the Democrats won more than half the votes but got less than half the seats.
- In seven states where Republicans redrew the districts, 16.7 million votes were cast for Republicans and 16.4 million votes were cast for Democrats—electing 73 Republicans and 34 Democrats.
Despite Winning More Votes in 2012, Democrats Received Fewer House Seats
HOW TO Repair District BOUNDARIES
Legal and political remedies to prevent gerrymandering include court-ordered redistricting plans, citizen redistricting commissions, and alternative voting systems that do not depend on drawing boundaries for single-member electoral districts.
In 2010, a group of Florida voters collected enough signatures to put a proposition on the ballot proposing state constitutional standards for the legislature to follow when redistricting, including a requirement that “no apportionment plan or individual district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.”
Districts, “where feasible, utilize existing political and geographical boundaries.”
The amendment passed with more than 62 percent of the vote, winning in nearly every part of the state, followed by a 2015 victory for citizen-led redistricting reform in the Florida Supreme Court.
Brian Olson is a software engineer in Massachusetts who wrote a program to draw "optimally compact" equal-population congressional districts in each state. Olson's algorithm draws districts that respect the boundaries of census blocks, which are the smallest geographic units used by the Census Bureau. This ensures that the district boundaries reflect actual neighborhoods and don't, say, cut an arbitrary line through somebody's house.
Some argue that compactness isn't a very good measure of district quality. Districts should also respect "communities of interest"—that is, there should be some common denominator among a district's residents. Communities of interest are a great ideal, but in practice they're so fuzzy that they open the door to all manner of redistricting shenanigans, as we've seen.