Gerrymandering Series: the Beginning, its Development, and the Contemporary Application

By: Robert Bryson

The Beginning

Gerrymandering is a political process in which electoral districts are drawn with convoluted or meandering boundaries. The term was coined in 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed into law a Boston-area electoral district that resembled a mythological salamander, however, the process of drawing abstract districts was an American political practice since 1788.

Ironically, gerrymandering developed into a more widespread practice following the Apportionment Act of 1842, which reformed the electoral system. The Apportionment Act (1) split states into congressional districts and (2) required that a single representative be elected from each district. Before this reform, many states elected their Representatives at-large which allowed the majority party to select all of its Representatives thereby denying the minority vote representation.

Its Development

There are two types of modern gerrymander: (1) packing and (2) cracking. Packing refers to the concentration of a particular bloc of voters which dilutes their voting power in a state. Cracking refers to the breakup of blocs to dilute their voting power among several districts.

Under Section 2 of Voting Rights Act, states draw minority-majority districts which permit minority communities to elect representatives if (1) there is racially polarized voting; and (2) minority populations constitute 50% of the voting-age population in a particular area.[1] However, racially motivated gerrymandering is strictly prohibited outside of these narrow confines.[2] Essentially, states can draw minority-majority districts if there is a majority-minority population in a given area.  However, States cannot “pack” minority populations or “crack” minority populations apart.

Contemporary Application

The modern application of gerrymandering is (generally) to enhance political partisan advantages, was opposed to suppress minority votes. Historically, both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of using gerrymandering to entrench their political power. However, the advent of “big data,” improved statistical models, and more computing power empowered partisans to develop gerrymandered districts to much greater detail. Since the 1990s, political operatives made use of advanced mapping programs (RedAppl, autBound, and Maptitude) to draw hyper-partisan districts.

Furthermore, some states adopted new procedures to draw districts – in an attempt to remove the “partisan” from drawing districts. However, these new procedures are not perfect. For example, California created an independent commission which is composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents (not a member of either party). The commission is required to create districts pursuant to the following criterion:

  • Population Equality: compliance with the Constitution’s requirement of “one person, one vote”;
  • Compliance with the Voting Rights Act: ensure equal opportunity for minorities to elect a candidate (see above);
  • Geographic Contiguity: areas within a district must be connected to each other (first enacted in the Apportionment Act of 1842);
  • Geographic Integrity: minimize the division of counties, cities, neighborhoods, and “community of interest[3]”;
  • Geographic Compactness: to the extent possible, and without violating the previous requirements, districts should not bypass nearby communities for more distant communities; and
  • Nesting: to the extent possible, and without violating the previous requirements, each Senate district should be composed of two whole Assembly districts.

The California commission emphasized grouping voting blocs and geographic compactness. Conversely, the Arizona independent commission’s goal was to minimize the efficiency gap[4]. The maps determined by the commission were controversial as it reduced the Republican congressional advantage[5]. This resulted in the Arizona Senate voting to remove the commission president which was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled the removal was unconstitutional and reinstated the commission president. The commission was also subjected to a federal challenge in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the commission was constitutional.[6]

Partisan gerrymandering was and remains a pillar of American politics. Gerrymandering isn’t always a bad tool as it can empower minority populations. However, modern computing power and data sets now enable the drawing of hyper-partisan districts which could be used to entrench minority political power.

[1] See Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and Betty v. Strickland (2009) 556 U.S. 1

[2] See Shaw v. Reno (1993) 509 U.S. 630 and Miller v. Johnson (1995) 515 U.S. 900

[3] A community of interest is any contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests which should be included in the same district to ensure fair representation. The community of interest standard resulted in contentious debates as the commission defined a community of interest broadly from neighborhoods; to workers on the same commute; and even social areas such as “intense beach recreation.”

[4] The efficiency gap is the difference between the representatives sent to Congress and the vote differential among the parties. For example, in a state with 5 seats and with a vote of 40% Democrat and 60% Republican, and with no efficiency gap – then Democrats should get 2 seats and Republicans should get 3 seats. However, if Republicans have 4 seats, then there is an efficiency gap of 1.

[5] Two Democratic seats were more safely drawn, and a third Republican seat as possibly competitive as it voted both Republican and Democrat in the previous 3 elections.

[6] See Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, et. al., (2015) 576 U.S.      , 135 S.Ct. 2652

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