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When maps attack: A primer on political gerrymandering

In the world of politics, maps turn into living things.

An Iowa attorney compared them to an amoeba during a 2007 NPR interview. A Philadelphia Inquirer writer used the more colorful description, “a mutant, one-legged lobster with an oversize claw.” And if you’ve ever played TheReDistricting Game, you’ve watched its cartoon of a map turning into giant green alligator, hungrily munching away at the elected officials around it.

Obviously, we aren’t talking about your average, everyday atlas. These are political district maps, drawing the boundaries of where one elected official’s territory ends and the other begins. And the reason they get compared to monsters is because of a process known as gerrymandering. It’s something that you’ll be hearing much more about as census forms are counted and elections approach.

When redistricting becomes gerrymandering

Once every ten years , the federal government conducts its official population count – the U.S. Census. You might have seen the ads encouraging families and residents to fill out their Census forms. When those forms are collected and government officials tally the numbers, they use them to – among other things – begin the process of redistricting.

In redistricting, the maps of congressional districts are redrawn to make up for changes in population, assuring that each congressperson represents about the same number of people. For example: let’s say Rep. Saxton’s district is right next to Rep. Vespucci’s district, and they used to have the same number  of constituents – 650,000 or so. After this year’s census results came in, they showed  that the population of Rep. Saxton’s district had dropped by over 25,000, while Rep. Vespucci’s district had grown by nearly 30,000. When redistricting happens, the map of Rep. Saxton’s district would be redrawn to include some of Rep. Vespucci’s, bringing their populations back into balance. Almost.

The problem critics find is that redistricting is almost always handled by the elected officials themselves. In almost all 50 states, the state legislators are the ones redrawing the map, leading to what some see as an abuse of power. Legislators who want to give their political party the best chance of being elected might remake political maps that now cut across towns and counties, ignoring logical boundaries and creating awkward shapes – the “monster” maps we talked about before. Say Rep. Saxton was a Democrat, but so were the 25,000 people who left his district. When he redraws his map, taking over parts of Rep. Vespucci’s territory, he might just aim for the area where the most Democrats live. THIS is the practice people refer to as gerrymandering.

Problems – and solutions

Many view gerrymandering as a threat to democracy itself. Some just see it as a shady, but not necessarily illegal practice. At its most neutral, it allows politicians to hold on to their seats.  It might even be done agreeably. Say Rep. Vespucci is a Republican; he would be perfectly fine with his Democratic colleague taking away those pesky Democratic voters who moved into his district. But sometimes the practice becomes less about cooperation and more about entrenchment – and occasionally injustice.

In Pennsylvania, the political blog Metropolis reports that the state is the second-most gerrymandered in the country, and that five attempts to reform its redistricting system have been shot down in the past decade.

According to an NPR report, only one out of California’s 53 congressional districts has changed parties in the last three election cycles because of gerrymandering. Let’s ponder that one. In the past 12 years, the state of California has held 159 Congressional elections;  only one election out of those 159 ended with a new party taking office.

In the past, gerrymandering was even used by politicians to disenfranchise certain blocs of voters based on their race. For example, this was used in Southern states to limit the voting power of black citizens, until the Voting Rights Act of 1964 effectively outlawed it.

However, an alternative means of redistricting is practiced in the state of Iowa that some see as more fair and effective. In 1972, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state’s political districts were out of whack, either over- or under-populated. It required the legislature to fix the problem, and since the 1980 census, an independent commission has been in charge of redistricting. This means that the politicians in Iowa are no longer the ones who decide what population gets to vote for them.

However, political scientists point out that this model works in Iowa because the state is so uniform; mostly white, an even split between political parties, an evenly spread out population. In more diverse areas, it would not be as easy, or as successful, leaving leaders in those states to find other ways to make sure  the gerrymandering monster isn’t abused.
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Comments
4/20/2012
MIDLAND, Tx
Morgan
Berthoud
The officials who represent these areas should not be allowed to decide where they will or wont be part of. There should be a an unbiased commitee who decides, run by federal funds, and be held in private, so that Greedy corrupt politicians can not intercede on decisions made by the gorup(s). Its not really fare to people who live in these communities if their boundaries are constantly redefined.

10/28/2011
Watertown, MA
nowshin
Rimas
I think the death penalty is unconstitutional, because constitution is against cruel and unusual punishment.

5/31/2010

Bryan
Nimitz HS, Irving, TX
I believe that gerrymandering should be illegal because it can give unfair advantages to someone while giving someone else a disadvantage. It is an extremely unfair practice that should not be allowed to continue. Iowa came up with a different way of redistricting and it works for them, so that means the other states could too. I know Iowa’s plan will not work for all of the states, but the states should figure it out for themselves.

5/27/2010

Casey
Nimitz High School, Irving,TX
I believe that gerrymandering should become illegal because it is a very flawed system supported by the ones that benefit from it. If the elected official is the one that gets to redistrict than that person could probably stay in power forever. I think a good solution would be a separate party that is unbiased and monitored and they should decide the redistricting lines.

5/26/2010

Erin
Springfield High School, Springfield, PA
I think gerrymandering is wrong; however politicians are not doing much about the cause and seem to not pay much attention to it. Officials should decide whether or not they want to be a part of it, but I think it is wrong and would not participate in it. Every opinion should be unbiased so there is no corruption within the government.

5/26/2010

Kenisha S.
NORTHEAST HIGH, Philadelphi, PA
I without a doubt believe that gerrymandering should be illegal. As Moriata said it gives politicians too much power over community decisions. It also takes from the people of the community... they should have a say in what goes on where they live. And also the elected officials should not be able to pick and choose which areas they do and do not want to be apart of. If this goes on this can and will be distructive for the city in general.

5/25/2010

Mauricio V.
Nimitz HS, Irving/TX
Gerrymandering should become illegal because it is destroying the opinions of the created minorities that evolved from redistricting. If politicians are able to control who gets to vote for who, then a form of dictatorship will take hold. Politicians will be able to stay in office for a lifetime because the districts are arranged to keep them in office. Redistricting should be left to a third unbiased party. One from another nation would probably be ideal. Districts should be equal in population and shouldn’t be forced into odd shapes to include minorities or political parties.

5/23/2010

Karina
Nimitz High School, Irving, Texas
Gerrymandering is a tool that can be used for good causes and bad causes. Gerrymandering used for selfish reasons and to obtain power, should not be tolerated. For example, using gerrymandering to shadow minorities so that they can have no influence whatsoever is substantially wrong. In cases like these, minorities will have a hard time for their concerns and problems to be heard by the government. Although gerrymandering can be used to obstruct minorities and gain political power, it also has its benefits. Vigilance of how gerrymandering is used has to be provided and strictly followed, allowing bad use of gerrymandering can be harmful and wrong but it can also be good. But of course questions about when is gerrymandering is bad or good can arise. The use of gerrymandering has to have its limits and how it is used.

5/21/2010

joseph mcc
northeast high, philly pa
i think it really dont matter who runs wat part of the city and thepolitions shouldnt worry bout who is voting for them because if they are good at wat they do then they will win

5/21/2010

Stacie
Nimitz High School, Irving, Tx
I think that the gerrymandering process is wrong, but there really isn't anything that the politicians are wanting to do to change it. The only reason the process in Iowa was changed was because the courts changed it for them. There will always be a loop hole that the politicians can get through and they will abuse their power any way they can. It's inevitable. So many problems and debates arise from this process, but I don't see any use in fighting if you know the outcome of the argument. So I think that until I can actually vote myself, I wont complain about the process. Maybe when I have the opportunity to become an active voter, I'll be able to understand the disgruntled complaints.

5/19/2010

Moraita B. 7th Pd.
Northeast High School, Philadelphia, Pa
I completely agree with Cody. I think that gerrymandering should be illegal because it gives politicians too much power over community decisions. Dividing communities within a city to have completely different ideals and policies can prove to be destructive for the city as a whole. Its not really fare to people who live in these communities if their boundaries are constantly redefined.

5/18/2010

Cody
Northeast, Philadelphia
In my opinion, Gerrymandering is illegal and wrong the way it is conducted nowadays. The officials who represent these areas should not be allowed to decide where they will or wont be part of. There should be a an unbiased commitee who decides, run by federal funds, and be held in private, so that Greedy corrupt politicians can not intercede on decisions made by the gorup(s)

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