Skip to comments.How to End Gerrymandering -- A Simple Plan
Posted on 02/28/2005 11:13:52 AM PST by hinterlander
Elections without choice are Democracy how, exactly?
In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts, redrew the legislative districts in his state to favor his party in the upcoming election. Looking at the sinuous and contorted shape of one district, which projected protuberances into dispersed pockets of voters across half the state, one observer noted that it looked rather like a salamander. "No," another commentator replied, "it looks more like a Gerry-mander."
Thus, one of America's oldest and most-questionable political practices was born and named, surprisingly in Massachusetts. Gerrymandering is a political trick that parties in power use to stay in power, or to increase the size of their legislative majority without having to increase the number of their voters.
The secret to Gerrymandering is creatively drawing districts in such a way that your opposition's supporters are concentrated into a small number of districts in which they constitute an overwhelming majority of the voters. Giving your opponent a certain win in these districts may seem a counterintuitive means of defeating them overall, but the result of doing so is that your voters now constitute a slimmer, but still quite safe, majority in all the remaining districts. And it is better to win a lot of districts by a moderate margin than to win one district by a huge margin. When the ruling party is the one drawing the districts, it can see to it that that is exactly what happens.
Viewed simply as strategy in the abstract mental contest of politics, the practice is quite clever, really -- in the same way that chemical weapons are clever. It is effective, but it is hard to argue that it is good for democracy. Gerrymandering has the practical effect of making government less responsive to the will of the people by making election outcomes in most districts foregone conclusions. When every district has been specifically drawn to give one party or the other a safe margin of victory, what real power do the voters have in most districts? They can vote for the winner, or they can vote for the loser, but they can't really hope to change things with their votes. Upsets and voter rebellions are quite unlikely, too, because the minority party doesn't exactly run its first-stringers in the districts where it has little chance of victory.
The result is overwhelming odds of incumbent re-election. The re-election rate in the US House of Representatives averages 95%; in 2002 it reached 99%. In the Senate, where gerrymandering is not possible since the boundaries of the states are fixed, the re-election rate averages 90% -- still high, since incumbency has numerous other advantages, but noticeably below the rate of the House. As a consequence, all but the most corrupt, senile, stupid, and ineffective Representatives are returned to office each year based on party loyalty alone.
Gerrymandering is obviously a problem, but who wants to fix it? Not incumbents, that's for sure. They've even taken to using computers to find the optimum shapes for redistricting, political mischievousness apparently being no longer limited by the intellect of politicians. Even if one were to pass a law banning the practice by name, how would you define "gerrymandering" in a way that a clever judge or politician couldn't wiggle out of, if he or she desired?
The situation would seem hopeless, but it's not. Because what we are really talking about here is a very simple geometry problem. What makes a gerrymandered district so obvious to even the most naïve eye is its shape: contorted and protruding, with legs and tail curling into scattered enclaves of like-minded voters. It looks like a salamander, after all. More historical and un-engineered jurisdictions, such as states, counties and municipalities have a much more compact shape, usually looking more like poorly drawn circles or squares than elongated amphibious tetrapods. The difference between the two forms is simply the ratio of their areas to their perimeters. Jurisdictions that have been honestly grown by time and community have a small perimeter relative to their area. Gerrymanders, by comparison, have very large perimeters defining their modest areas. Banning gerrymandering could be as simple as passing a law defining a maximum allowable perimeter to area ratio, corrected for scale.
Such a rule would be subject to little possible interpretation and would thus be enforceable. The formula to arrive at this value would be so simple that even the National Education Association could understand it, and perhaps even teach it. I'm not the first to recognize the mathematical nature of the problem, of course. I simply point it out again here. The solution has been around for some time, but it is not a limit any legislature is eager to pass on itself.
That is why the law will likely have to be passed by popular ballot initiative. Ballot initiatives are a proven way to force the will of the voters unto an unwilling legislature. All that is required is for a core of supporters in a ballot initiative state to take up the issue with proper leadership and the gerrymander that ate Democracy can be finally slain.
The ideal first state in which to try this plan is California, which has a rich history of successful ballot initiatives and -- for better or worse -- has an enormous influence on the rest of the nation. More importantly, the popular Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, (who came to power in a recall election having much in common with a ballot initiative drive) has made ending gerrymandering one of his declared legislative priorities.
Unfortunately, Governor Schwarzenegger's plan is to ask the California legislature to voluntarily pass a law ending the practice by having "an independent panel of retired judges -- not politicians -- determine California's legislative and congressional districts." So California judges are not politicians? Right. And the Democrat legislature is going to hand districting over to a Republican Governor voluntarily. You know -- just because it's the right thing to do.
The Governator's heart is in the right place, but his plan is unlikely to succeed, even if miraculously passed. Mr. Schwarzenegger has a much better option open to him: define the problem mathematically and bypass the legislature altogether to enact a solution.
In addition, Activist Judges already have an unseemly amount of power over our legislatures. Giving them the power to directly affect elections is a terrible idea. Instead, we should simply impose an enforceable limit on the legislature and allow its members to continue to draw its districts within those limits. There is no need to shift the balance of power further to the judiciary.
Politically, there is another great advantage to this plan. The initiative would be on the ballot in the same year that Governor Schwarzenegger will be campaigning for re-election. Schwarzenegger could thus pull off an impressive, yet honest, political trick of his own: campaigning for re-election as a populist outsider.
get a third grader from out of state to draw the precinct boundaries.
Add this to the 2008 Contract with America.
"Gerrymandering is obviously a problem..."
Isn't it interesting that the liberal media suddenly says that gerrymandering is "obviously a problem" now that it is boomeranging on the Democrats? Why wasn't it obvious over the last 60 years when it was keeping Republicans out of office?
Or, alternately, do not allow district lines to cross county lines. In other words, whole counties must be included in a district. One county cannot be in two districts.
Not only does that help end gerrymandering, it simplifies access to their elected officials by the people.
How can one seek to be a competent reporter without knowing how to use Google to source one's historical (or other) key points?
Ending partisan districting is mine. Let's do it.
I'm no fan of moderates, but it has been reasonable pointed out that having the nation divided into mostly secure congessional distracts makes politics more polarized, because few need to reach the other party in an election.
One recent trend has been an alliance of Black Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans draw as many "black districts" as possible, and clean up on the rest.
Personally, I think democracy means voters selecting politicians, not the other way around. Our House of Representatives can no longer be considered "democratic". That's a problem IMHO.
It's interesting, though, that the media is always ranting about the gerrymandering in Texas, but completely ignores the much more extreme gerrymandering in CA and NY. The primary reason the Dems retained control of the Congress after Reagan is because of the extreme gerrymandering that was in place. Of course, the media said nothing about it because the Democrats were the beneficiaries. Now that the GOP has turned the tables on them, though, they are going ballistic.
I think it's more Democrats trying to eliminate "Black districts" by parceling out blacks (particularly in urban areas) by cutting the city into 4-5 "pie slices" that extend out to the white suburbs so they have a bunch of 55-60% Democrat districts that will elect a bunch of white democrats.
This author pans the current redistricting initiative in California, but it's not quite as simple as he makes it sound. There are Federal laws regarding minorities that must be addressed in the process of drawing districts, which seriously complicates prospects for automated district-drawing.
So, Harris County, Texas, with 4 million people can only be in one district
How about one district can't span county lines?.
Nope, won't work here either. You've got to lump more than one county into a Congressional district out in West Texas - population is pretty sparse in places.
Oh well, back to the drawing board.
Okay, so it was a dumbass idea. :)
The first federal gerrymander was in Virginia in the first federal election.
"To humiliate Madison, (Patrick) Henry managed his rejection by the (Virginia) Assembly for a seat in the Senate, referring to him as one unworthy of the confidence of the people.....in an attempt to exclude Madison from the House of Representatives as well, Henry, a master of the "gerrymander" long before that term had been invented, placed Orange County (Madison's home area) in a Congressional district otherwise composed of counties considered heavily anti-federal." (Ketcham, p. 275).
Of course, state district gerrymandering predates the union.
On the national level, one house seat represents around 675,000 Americans. There can be no representative government on this scale because outside of a few cities, there are no homogenous communties of that size
Districts drawn by county lines, circles, or squares will shake up Congress once, but at the end of the day they will no better reflect the will of the people within than the "salamanders" do now. Most Americans would remain lumped together with other communities far away with which they have little interaction or common ground. But that lack of representation would be inflicted by geography and not politics, which at least takes some of the malice out of it.
Reasonably representative government would require 10,000 representatives, to be conservative. 20,000 would be better. A body of fulltime legislators this large would be paralyzed by its own size and not pass anything at all, which would be great. More reasonable would be for those 20,000 to meet once and vote amongst themselves on 400 or so fulltime representatives.
Americans would have a chance at real, one on one input with their representative, and the serving politicians would have no state to send pork back home to, so that function could fall back on the Senate.
Ha, not in this state (Massachusetts) where the legislature has overturned certain ballot initiatives.
The best thing for solving the problem here in Massachusetts is the census. Massachusetts is bound to lose a seat after the 2010 census. I think that is terrific.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.