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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