This is what America would look like without Gerrymandering

5 Aug


This is what America would look like without gerrymandering
Updated by Andrew Prokop on May 8, 2014, 2:00 p.m. ET @awprokop

Center for Range Voting
We’ve written about gerrymandering here on Vox — we’ve described some of the worst examples, and potential reforms that might prevent it. But what would a world without gerrymandering look like? Check out the map above, in which each colored district has a roughly equal population, for a glimpse.


The map was created by the Center for Range Voting, which was founded by math PhD Warren Smith and engineer Jan Kok to float innovative election reform proposals. To make it, they used what they call the shortest splitline algorithm. Basically, they used the shortest possible line to cut a state into two halves with roughly equal populations. Then they did so again, and again, and again, until they had the proper number of overall districts.

The map above crosses state borders, which is impossible in our current system. But the site also features maps for each individual state. Check out the difference between today’s ludicrously gerrymandered North Carolina House map — featuring twisting, snakelike districts that stretch across the state — and the Center’s version:


Top: Bottom: Center for Range Voting

But it’s important to note that, because of their simplicity, these maps don’t take several things into account. They don’t try to keep historical neighborhoods or regions intact, don’t try to ensure representation of racial minorities, and don’t pay any attention to striking a balance between political parties. (Update: Check out this John Sides post for more on the problems with drawing districts this way.) Still, they provide quite a contrast to the maps we have today.

It’s worth noting Canada also had a gerrymandering problem. This two-minute video explains how they fixed it.

What is gerrymandering?
In the US, every state elects a certain number of people to the House of Representatives — a number that’s based on the Census count of the state’s population. Pennsylvania, for instance, elects 18 House members. So Pennsylvania has to be divided into 18 congressional districts with roughly equal populations. In most US states, this process is controlled by the majority party in the state legislature.

Partisan gerrymandering occurs when this map-drawing process is intentionally used to benefit a particular political party — to help that party win more seats in the legislature, or more easily protect the ones it has. The goal is to create many districts that will elect members of one party, and only a few that will elect members of the opposite party. You can see Pennsylvania’s Congressional district map below:


You’ll notice that’s not a very clean map. It’s full of jagged edges and weird outcroppings and sharp turns. That’s no accident. The map was drawn by Pennsylvania’s Republicans in 2010, and it did its job: though Democrats won the state’s popular vote in 2012, Pennsylvania sent more Republicans (red) than Democrats (blue) to Congress:

Pa_us_houseMap: Eric Ostermeier,

To be exact, though House Republicans won only 49 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote, they won 72 percent of its House seats.

Gerrymandering can affect any legislative body that has to have districts drawn — which includes both the US House of Representatives, and every state legislature. And since political power is at stake, fights over redistricting are often quite intense.

The term gerrymandering is also sometimes used to describe somewhat different redistricting scenarios. Racial gerrymandering can mean the dilution of the voting power of certain racial or demographic groups, which is usually entangled with seeking partisan advantage. And a bipartisan gerrymander is a redistricting meant to protect incumbents of both parties.

The story of how gerrymandering got its name is actually pretty interesting. You can read it here.

Everything you need to know about gerrymandering

Isn’t 202 years long enough?

30 Jul

By Larry King
In a past state senate race:
Party A candidates got 51,766 votes
Party B candidates got 50,164 votes

Party A won 11 seats, Party B won 29 seats (sound familiar?)

Party A: Federalists
Party B: Republican
The state: Massachusetts
The date: 1812
The governor: Elbridge Gerry

The birth of gerrymandering.

Isn’t 202 years long enough?

Gerrymandering Reduces Competition, Fuels Partisanship in House Elections

17 Jul

Aending-gerrymandering-collccording to a Washington Post Election Lab projection from May 2014, an incumbent in 405 of the 435 House contests has a 90 percent chance or greater of winning his or her seat, leaving only 30 seats still relatively up for grabs. Other prominent forecasters, such as the Cook or Rothenberg outfits, have similar predictions that approximately 10 percent of House races are competitive.

“In 2002 and 2004, only 7% of congressional contests were decided by a 10% margin or less.”
These numbers follow a trend that has been seen in recent election cycles. In the 2002 and 2004 elections, a majority of congressional races were uncompetitive, as only 7 percent of the contests were decided by a margin of 10 percentage points or fewer.
Though there are numerous factors that explain the predictability of House elections, such as the durability of incumbents and the partisan advantages Democrats and Republicans enjoy in their respective strongholds, one contributor is redistricting — or, more accurately, gerrymandering — by both parties in order to cement partisan hegemony in their states.

Research by ProPublica shows that Republicans launched a concerted effort at redistricting in 2010. That year, Republican strategist Karl Rove published a column affirming that, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” Also in 2010, Ed Gillespie became the chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and made winning state legislatures — which in many states are responsible for drawing congressional districts — a national priority.

First, the RSLC and other Republican groups funneled millions of dollars from various corporations and big-name donors to professed tax-exempt and nonpartisan entities. For instance, the RSLC gave over a million dollars to Real Jobs NC, a group led by millionaire conservative activist Art Pope. Real Jobs NC ran ads against 20 Democrats in North Carolina’s statewide election in 2010, which helped Republicans win control of both legislative chambers.

After winning the state legislature, the RSLC gave money through its related non-disclosing entity, the State Government Leadership Foundation, to pay redistricting experts to redraw North Carolina’s 13 congressional boundaries in a more partisan way. North Carolina Democrats were “packed” into three districts, a feature of what the state’s congressional delegation optimistically called the “10-3 map.”

“The RSLC helped the GOP gain 12 legislatures that redrew electoral districts after the 2010 census.”
In the following 2012 congressional elections, the state’s delegation changed from 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans to 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats, despite Democratic House candidates receiving 50.5 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, the outcome was similar: Democratic House contenders won 83,000 more votes statewide but sent 5 Democrats to the House compared to the Republicans’ thirteen.
All in all, the RSLC’s so-called REDMAP project was a national success. It raised $30 million and helped Republicans win 12 legislatures responsible for drawing the district lines for 40 percent of the House’s seats.

During the 2012 elections, GOP candidates in Republican-controlled states won nearly three-quarters of the state’s congressional seats (72%) with slightly more than half (53%) of the vote.

These results compare to those in Democratic-controlled states, some of which also control redistricting. In 2012, Democrats won 71 percent of the available seats in their states with 56 percent of the vote.

Control over the redistricting process allowed them to keep Republicans disproportionately unrepresented in Congress. For instance, in Illinois, Republicans won 45 percent of the vote, but just one-third of the state’s House seats.

Nevertheless, despite Democrats winning more than 1.1 million more votes nationwide, Republicans retained control of the House and even expanded it through a combination of tea party influence and successful redistricting.

“In states where courts, nonpartisan commissions, or divided legislatures redrew the boundaries, the discrepancy between the percentage of votes and seats won was significantly narrower. “
In states where courts, nonpartisan commissions, or divided legislatures redrew the boundaries, the discrepancy between the percentage of votes and seats won was significantly narrower. In these states, Republicans won 46 percent of the vote and 44 percent of the seats.
In recent years, several states have moved to remove partisanship from the redistricting process. In California, for instance, congressional redistricting is now securely in the hands of an outside commission, and Florida no longer allows its electoral borders to be redrawn in a way that secures either party a competitive advantage.

On July 11, 2014, a federal judge in Florida rejected the state legislature’s redistricting plans on the grounds that “Republican political consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process” and thus violated the state’s Fair Districts constitutional amendment. It is unclear whether the legislature will have to redraw the boundaries for the state’s 17 congressional districts before the 2014 midterm elections.

Members of Congress have also sponsored bills to reform redistricting; however, neither party has shown mass support for such measures. GovTrack, for instance, gave H.R. 278, the “John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act,” a mere one percent chance of being enacted in 2013.

About the Author

Andrew Gripp received his M.A. in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown University in 2012. He writes on politics, international affairs, literature, and philosophy, and he teaches at Delaware County Community College in Media, PA.
Read More by Andrew Gripp


17 Jul

Tuesday, July 15, 20142

Barring a contested election or a race that’s simply too close to call, residents of Edgecombe and Martin counties woke up this morning with a new legislator set to take office in N.C. House District 23.

That’s a big change for Eastern North Carolina voters, who have been ably represented for many years by N.C. Rep. Joe Tolson. Tolson decided not to seek re-election this year.

Tuesday proved to be an interesting election for another reason, too. The candidates – Rusty Holderness and Shelly Willingham – are both Democrats.

They faced each other in a runoff because neither was able to win 40 percent of the vote in a crowded primary in May.

Whoever won Tuesday’s second primary will be the new representative because there is no Republican opponent to face in the fall.

That’s a shame – not because we oppose Democrats – but because North Carolina’s redistricting process has created more and more districts that are heavily stacked in favor of one party or the other. In the wake of the 2010 census, the majority of North Carolina’s congressional and legislative districts have leaned heavily Republican, since Republicans are in the majority of both the N.C. House and the N.C. Senate.

The N.C. General Assembly is responsible for redrawing the districts after every census. Little wonder that the new maps favor the GOP.

Prior to 2010, Democrats controlled both houses of the General Assembly for most of the the past 100 years. The Democrats gerrymandered districts in ways that favored their party for more than a century.

No matter which party holds the reins of power, the system is universally unfair to the voters of North Carolina.

We deserve to have a competitive choice in congressional and legislative races – not an election that has been preordained by partisan legislators armed with maps and databases.

North Carolina’s system for redistricting has been debated and challenged in the court system numerous times. But until the party in charge decides to make a change for a fairer system, we’re likely to have fewer choices on the ballot.


17 Jul

Fairer N.C. districts?

Posted: Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2014
From an editorial Tuesday in the Fayetteville Observer:

In district after district, from Congress to the General Assembly, many North Carolina voters will have little choice this fall. With districts carved out to be noncompetitive, incumbents face few challenges. The system doesn’t ensure the integrity of the democratic process, though it does perpetuate the party in power.

North Carolina is hardly the only place where gerrymandering is a problem. Florida voters were so fed up with it that they used their power of ballot amendments, something North Carolina voters don’t have, to include a “Fair Districts” measure in the state constitution in 2010. On Thursday, a judge ruled that the Florida Legislature had ignored this law in creating the state’s congressional map.

There’s an ongoing court challenge to the validity of North Carolina’s district maps as well. A bill proposed last year could have embraced fairness for future redistricting. Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, spearheaded the Nonpartisan Redistricting Process Bill, along with a group of sponsors from both sides of the aisle. The measure passed the House on a first reading, but was then sent to committee where it seems to have died.

Given the mess being created by the court ruling in Florida, next year’s legislative session would be a good time for lawmakers to make another attempt at bipartisan and fair districting reforms. Better it come from them soon than the courts later.

Read more here:

GOP HOLDS HOUSE ADVANTAGE:Redistricting gives Republicans edge in states that voted for Obama in 2012

17 Jul

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2014 12:21 am

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Democrats have long claimed that Republicans abused their legislative powers to elect a disproportionate number of U.S. House members. Now a Florida court is lending credence to their complaint.
The full impact of the Florida ruling — plus a similar lawsuit pending in North Carolina — won’t be known for some while. For now, at least, they shine light on the fiercely partisan practice of gerrymandering, in which state officials draw congressional districts to help their party.
Avi Resort Casino – INSTORY 300X250
Republicans and Democrats have engaged in gerrymandering for decades. Republicans refined the practice in 2011, a year after they won control of numerous state governments preparing to redraw congressional maps based on the 2010 census. It’s one reason Republicans hold a solid House majority even though Americans cast 1.4 million more votes for Democratic House candidates than for GOP House candidates in 2012.
Florida is a prime example of Democrats’ frustration. President Barack Obama carried the state twice, but Florida’s U.S. House delegation has 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
A Florida judge ruled Thursday that the GOP-controlled state legislature illegally drew congressional districts to primarily benefit the Republican Party, and ordered them redrawn. The legislature is expected to appeal the ruling, and this fall’s elections are unlikely to be affected.
Republicans haven’t controlled the White House or U.S. Senate for more than five years. Yet their House majority — now 234 to 199 — looks safe this fall. Redistricting episodes in Florida and North Carolina help explain why.
Republicans hold nine of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House seats, and they have solid prospects to make it 10. Their nominee is favored to win a district, which Obama lost by 19 percentage points, being vacated by centrist Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre.
In recent statewide elections, North Carolina has been about as evenly divided as a state can be. Obama narrowly won it once, and lost it once. Voters replaced a Democratic governor with a Republican in 2012. Each party has one U.S. senator, and this fall’s re-election bid by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is likely to be extremely close.
Several other states have sent more Republicans to Congress than their presidential voting patterns would suggest. Obama carried Ohio twice, but Republicans control its U.S. House delegation 12-4. Pennsylvania hasn’t backed a GOP presidential nominee since 1988, but it has 13 House Republicans and five Democrats.
The House makeup is similar in other states that Obama won twice, including Virginia (8-3 Republican), Michigan (9-5 Republican) and Wisconsin (5-3 Republican).
The only state trending the other way is Arizona. Obama lost it twice, yet it has five House Democrats and four Republicans.
A chief reason for the imbalance is the often politicized state-by-state practice of redrawing the House’s 435 districts after each once-a-decade Census. Districts are apportioned by population, with each state getting at least one House member.
Americans’ mobility patterns also helped, as millions of liberals continue to move to urban areas. This so-called “self-gerrymandering” makes it easier for Republican mapmakers to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into a handful of districts. That helps Republicans win a larger number of districts by smaller but still-safe margins.
In North Carolina, Republican officials drew three House districts that twisted and snaked to include as many black neighborhoods, and other likely Democratic areas, as possible. In the 2012 elections, these three districts recorded overwhelming Democratic majorities. Obama lost the other 10 districts by margins ranging from 13 to 23 percentage points.
Republicans won their 9-4 U.S. House edge even as North Carolinians cast more votes for Democratic House candidates overall.
Democrats are asking the state Supreme Court to rule the redistricting unconstitutional. Black voters were packed so densely into three districts, they contend, that their overall political clout was unduly diminished.
“We’ve got a red government imposed on a purple state,” said Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina professor who advised the plaintiffs.
Republicans defend the map, noting that they followed state laws enacted when Democrats controlled the government. “We would expect our maps to be vindicated completely,” GOP state Sen. Bob Rucho said at the time.
David Rouzer, who had been an aide to Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, came within 654 votes of ousting McIntyre in 2012 in the 7th District, which includes several southeastern counties. Now that McIntyre is retiring, Rouzer is favored to win.
Relaxing in a Raleigh coffee shop before a recent fundraiser, Rouzer said McIntyre had found it harder and harder to persuade anti-Obama voters to support him. “A lot of people feel like the country is in big trouble,” Rouzer said, citing the federal deficit, unemployment and other concerns.
Democratic Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who has spent 25 years in Congress, sees political chicanery in North Carolina’s U.S. House map.
“It’s the most extreme gerrymandering, on a purely partisan basis, I think we’ve ever seen,” Price said.


17 Jul

The Great Gerrymandering Debate

JULY 15, 2014 10:20 AM COMMENTS (0)

Does gerrymandering cause polarization?

In the July tradition of summer camps past, let’s play two truths and a lie: Gerrymander edition. Ready? Guess the lie:

1) Based on national votes cast for them, Democrats should have 18 more seats — a three seat majority — not the 33 seat minority engineered through Republican gerrymandering.
2) Eight of today’s ten most gerrymandered districts were drawn by Republican legislatures.
3) Nine out of those ten mo­­st gerrymandered districts benefit Democrats.

If you’ve been following national gerrymandering from the left, #3 is clearly false. Republicans have undeniably engaged in crafty redistricting plans more (#2), and it follows that the practice clearly doesn’t benefit Democrats, who have lost their majority (#1).

In fact, they’re all true, including #3. The most egregiously gerrymandered districts — especially the ones drawn by Republicans — benefit Democrats the most. But how can that be?

The answer has to do with gerrymandering’s long-suspected, but never proven, relation to polarization. The political community has debated this issue for years, producing widely varying answers. But at least part of the reason is a misconception about gerrymandering, and what gerrymandering ultimately does.

A Very Gerrymandered Misconception

Gerrymandering is the phenomenon of manipulating the Congressional redistricting process. With every Census, all 50 state legislatures are required to redraw the borders of their congressional districts to accord with the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” rule — to make the districts as equally populous as possible. While the exercise is premised on equality, it presents an irresistible opportunity for political parties to tilt the playing field to their advantage. The party that controls the state legislature inevitably redraws the districts, with patchworks and shapes so bizarre their creators nearly join the pantheon of postmodern art. The retooling of these boundaries boils down to one purpose: to maximize the number of seats their party can capture in the upcoming election. Bewildered by the complexity of other options, the Supreme Court has mostly upheld this arrangement.

The common misconception — even President Obama has fallen prey to error — is to assume that gerrymandering allows parties to engineer safe districts for their incumbents, ensuring easy reelection. But the exact opposite is true. Redistricting’s real purpose is ngineering safe districts for your opponent — to pack as many of them into as few districts as possible. It’s like Patton’s infamous maxim on war: you make the other poor bastard die for his country. If anything, redistricting by conservatives would make Republican House districts slightly less conservative in order to include Republican voters in districts where their votes are needed to win seats.

That’s exactly what Republican state legislatures — exactly seven of them, by one analysis — have done. Of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in America, according to an analysis by The Washington Post, nine are Democratic strongholds. Gerrymandering employs two main tactics: “packing,” or stuffing your opponents into as few districts as possible; and “cracking,” or taking the remaining scattered enclaves of opposition, splitting them in two and melting them into separate larger districts. (Incidentally, the dictionary of gerrymandering is long and hilarious). We think of gerrymandering primarily as “cracking,” but successful redistricting requires both techniques to stack the odds.

This makes sense when you zoom out to the state level. Take North Carolina, roughly level with Maryland as the most gerrymandered state in America, for example. In Maryland, redistricting by a Democratic legislature has helped grow a slim 5-4 majority in the congressional delegation into a clear 7-1 advantage. North Carolina has observed a similar if more rapid process, yet there the three most Democratic districts are also the most gerrymandered districts. But in 2010, before the redistricting, North Carolina’s congressional delegation was 7-6 Democratic. After redistricting, Republicans transformed that proportion into a 7-4 advantage (the state itself lost seats due to population changes). The Republican state legislature achieved this reversal by making those four Democratic seats extremely safe — so safe, in fact, that the average percentage of victory in 2012 for gerrymandered districts was 76 percent. The average Republican percentage of victory in North Carolina, however, actually diminished after redistricting, from 80 percent to 62 percent.

But today, people treat gerrymandering as the apparent product of politicians’ desire for sizable, gorge-like majorities. In fact, the opposite is true. It may seem like a small distinction, but it actually has an enormous impact on the public psychology of electoral reform.

The Great Debate

At the moment, gerrymandering is at the center of an intriguing debate in the political class. Does gerrymandering cause polarization? After all, both have risen to unprecedented levels.

Let’s imagine two sides to this debate: The Gerriers (pronounced exactly as you imagine) and the Anti-Gerriers. Each side has a detailed argument to make their case, but their real difference lies in their M.O. Gerriers tend to look at political incentives; but Anti-Gerriers see polarization elsewhere in society.

Let’s start with the Gerriers. They claim that gerrymandering causes polarization, or at least contributes to it, for a number of reasons. The mainstay of their logic is that polarization is best exemplified by Congressional action, and that incentives for voters and their representatives are the main culprit for this effect. Some of their reasons for why gerrymandering creates this polarization:

1) By “cracking” constituencies and fusing them into unrepresentative districts, gerrymandering “disenfranchises” voters by rendering their ballots meaningless and diminishes confidence in democratic processes (sometimes known as “political efficacy”). This is the “competitive” view: districts should have as competitive elections as possible, so that the winner is more moderate.
2) It splits apart communities or regions that have similar interests and ought to be served by the same representation, creating municipal rivalries for federal resources.
3) Most importantly, as the argument goes, it parcels the state into ideological camps, preventing the kind of dialogue and reconciliation that some say used to define our civic tradition. Without the mitigating effect of a “moderate” constituency, Congresspersons who represent these ideological strongholds themselves have less reason to compromise thus making Congress more partisan.

Taken together, for Gerriers these consequences of redistricting explain why Americans hate Congress in record numbers, but 90% of Congresspersons are nonetheless reelected. For while each district coexists with their elected representative in strong ideological harmony, Congress becomes supposedly ever more dysfunctional as the political aisle grows wider and wider.

This Gerrier logic makes sense, in a circumstantial way. Yet the reaction from the Anti-Gerriers has been swift. The driving theme of their critique is that polarization exists as more than just a record of legislative action: it’s a cultural phenomenon that exists outside of lines drawn on a map. As George Washington University’s John Sides aptly puts it, polarization is about “people, not polygons.” The Anti-Gerrier’s arguments extend further:

1) Political scientists point out that political partisans tend to live in areas dominated by candidates with whom they already agree, a decades-long phenomenon that has to do with American culture, not redistricting. It’s not clear that taking polarized, self-segregated communities and forcing them into the same district would somehow diminish partisan hatred, and could plausibly increase it.
2) Another study imagined voting behavior based on simulations that created more “neutral” redistricting plans compared to the gerrymandered ones we have now. In each scenario, the polarization trends were still comparable – vindicating the idea that the causes of polarization continue to exist whether states employ gerrymandering or not.
3) Professor Sides has pointed out that polarization trends are mirrored in the Senate, where the seats of course cannot be ‘redistricted.’ Again, this polarization in the Senate hints that something else, not gerrymandering, is causing polarization.
4) Redistricting can’t explain polls that show Republicans have a growing aversion to compromise in theory, an aversion liberals do not share, according to the Pew Research Center. Primary elections that appeal to a more extreme ‘base’ of partisan voters in every district, whether gerrymandered or not, could then be a more likely culprit for polarization.
5) Gerrymandering doesn’t explain Republican polarization, the more dominant driving force of American polarization. After all, how could it? The biggest point is this: Republicans have made their districts, all other things being equal, slightly less safe for themselves – they’ve made thinner peanut butter sandwiches – districts that are certainly less safe than their ‘packed’ Democratic counterparts.

Each side in this debate has well-reasoned and detailed rationale. But in these two bullet summaries, one theme jumps out. Gerriers and Anti-Gerriers certainly disagree on the merits of gerrymandering, but the core of their disagreement is about something else: It’s their worldview. Gerriers see polarization fundamentally as a function of how we vote. Anti-Gerriers see how we act, not how we vote, as the principal behavior. Is polarization a cultural creation, or a political phenomenon?

For now, the consensus from political science has dealt a clean victory to the Anti-Gerriers, a class of eager Moneyballers perhaps too quick to marshal data sets and simulations. But Anti-Gerriers have issued a reprisal worthy only of the fallaciousness of their adversaries: by debating political incentives and cultural developments, we’ve asked the wrong question. It is, in effect, the blind leading the deaf.

The Anti-Gerriers have convincingly shown that gerrymandering isn’t causing polarization, but in the process they may have overlooked something important: inequality, in many senses polarization’s evil twin. Increasingly, these two horsemen of American decline are capturing the imagination of political scientists and economists, who have begun to study how the phenomena are linked. Not without coincidence, polarization and inequality are also where politics and culture clash. If political scientists considered this connection, gerrymandering need not link directly to polarization in order to contribute to it. Instead, it would need only to link to inequality, where the connection becomes possible by the second degree.

How Gerrymandering Could Contribute to Polarization

It turns out that the link could plausibly exist, and become worthy of deeper exploration. Gerrymandering, that is, could have a lot to do with inequality. It is a conclusion that numerous academics and observers have begun to reach: Increased political polarization does, in fact, correlate to heightened inequality, and vice versa. Extensive and growing research — from Princeton to Georgetown, behavioral economics to city politics, mainstream journalism to the Federal Reserve — all prove or point to this same correlative connection. Here is the marquee chart from the New York Federal Reserve Board showing how upward shifts in polarization predict upward shifts in inequality:

One theory for this correlation, advanced by the New York Fed, is that political polarization prevents Congress from acting on economic issues, especially ones directly concerning inequality. The minimum wage is just one example of a highly popular policy designed to counteract inequities that has seen no action in Congress.

Other interpretations seek greater complexity with their analysis. As journalist Ezra Klein beautifully explains, voting tendencies in Congress no longer accord to voter preferences, in that Congressional action remains at identical levels whether public support for a given policy is at 10 percent or 90 percent. Instead, Congressional tendencies are now best predicted by third parties — action groups, nonprofits, for-profits, PACs, Super PACs, unions — that donate campaign contributions.

These organizations wield their power by donating greater and greater sums of cash during federal election cycles. The total price tag for 2012 election contributions was $6.3 billion — the highest ever. The next highest was four years prior, and the next highest four years before that, and so on and so forth — with nonpresidential election years also experiencing steady growth. Specifically, campaign contributions tend to find their way to incumbents, who possess a major advantage in fundraising. Whether incumbents win or lose, they typically spend the most on elections. They also spend unprecedented amounts of time raising money during their time in office

And gerrymandering, by design, creates incumbents. The predictive power and capture of campaign finance colludes with gerrymandering, whether via “cracking” or “packing.” In newly captured districts (created by cracking), serious challengers require extra fundraising prowess just to meet parity with their gerrymandered incumbents — money that is less likely to come from citizen constituents since they constitute such a marked minority in the district. Even in party strongholds (created by packing), where virtually no challenger could succeed, the warping effect of campaign finance is felt — through the rising phenomenon of candidate-to-candidate giving. Candidates with excess cash are permitted to donate it to any candidate they choose, creating a strong incentive for incumbents, even in “packed” districts, to fundraise like there’s no tomorrow, in order to build up political chits. If gerrymandering produces a diminution of citizen faith in the democratic process, it would plausibly discourage constituents from donating to their congressional campaign or any other, further diminishing the incentive for Congresspersons to act in accordance with voter preferences (as Klein found).

Finally, the fact that our redistricting system affords redistricting power to state legislatures in the first place adds a new dimension to the campaign finance wars. As part of a nationwide conservative plan to redraw House districts across the country, Project REDMAP spent $30 million on state elections, alongside other corporate-aligned interested groups like the Koch brothers. We might imagine that the same finance-driven force that straightens out Klein’s graph will soon exert the same affect on state legislatures, exacerbating inequality. Remember how Sides disproved the gerrymander-polarization connection — that polarization in the House mimics the Senate? The biggest difference between the House and Senate is that only the former faces redistricting. But the gerrymander-inequality connection stands on the same logic: the New York Fed study found that polarization in the House correlates more closely with inequality than in the Senate.

This is the heart of why we misunderstand gerrymandering, as a debate between voting behavior and American culture. Gerriers think gerrymandering makes seats “safer,” when it fact the data tells us it makes majority party districts slightly less safe; But this is a contradiction only if you believe district “safety” has to do solely with votes. Anti-Gerriers think political polarization happens outside of gerrymandering, in American culture; but this works only if the opinions of citizens have a manifestation among elected officials. It doesn’t; they barely do. Safety, in the new era of campaign finance, is about fundraising and money, and the opinions that have agency are the ones behind the names who sign the checks — not about votes, and not about opinion.

This missed connection is often hiding in plain sight. Reporter (and Gerrier) Dave Weigel highlights a particularly conservative Congressman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and contends that his behavior is a product of his gerrymandered district, a notion that Anti-Gerrier and New York Times reporter Nate Cohn refutes. After all, Cohn says, Jordan’s district is slightly less red than otherwise (just like North Carolina). Yet Jordan feels more “safe” politically. Why? Weigel casually stumbles upon the critical detail without fully exploring it:

Jordan ran ahead of Romney, easily dispatching a union organizer who raised $34,167 to Jordan’s $1,078,119.

Congressman Jordan feels safer because he is safer — because he sits on committees whose business concerns powerful interest groups. Because those interest groups donate to anyone who sits on those committees, a privilege of incumbency. Because Congressman Jordan receives those donations. Congressman Jordan feels safer despite losing Republican votes because political safety in elections has little to do with votes.

Weigel’s accidentally-correct reporting sums up the idea here. The Gerriers are potentially right that gerrymandering worsens polarization, but wrong to diagnose gerrymandering in and of itself as the problem. It’s the incumbency that gerrymandering perpetuates — both packed and cracked — that worsens polarization by attracting campaign money and thus heightening inequality.

There’s one important drawback to this idea. Would some kind of gerrymandering reform realistically mitigate inequality, and therefore polarization? To redraw every district as a 50-50 toss up would probably make the situation worse: every race soon a life-or-death black hole of national money. And with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, there’s no limit to how much influence a single person could exert throughout unlimited elections across the country.

Even though the connection may be strong between gerrymandering and inequality, its purpose may only be to shed light on a larger truth. After California instituted its own attempt to thwart gerrymandering — instituting “nonpartisan” district review boards that attempted to draw “fair” districts — the following election was the most expensive on record, and polarization still increased. These are two facts that should not be read separately. California’s gerrymandering reform produced a more proportionate congressional delegation, but that’s about all it did, while inequality and polarization remain rampant. Moreover, the supposedly nonpartisan commission quickly became the target of political maneuvering by the state’s Democratic establishment. The two horsemen still ride in California.

Gerrymandering may be linked to inequality, and therefore to polarization, but it’s not clear that correcting gerrymandering would solve those problems. To the extent that it could, there may be only one solution: deliberately drawing congressional districts for the sole purpose of alleviating inequality, or, if you’ll excuse, “Fair-e-mandering.” Such districts would have lines that twist and contort in the interest of linking the poorest slums with the most garish McMansions. Incumbents, then, would at least have to face the whole spectrum of income in the same proverbial town hall. Then again, given the exertion of campaign finance, we know whom Congressman McMansion would tune out as soon as the proverbial Town Hall were underway.

Perhaps that’s the lesson here. In a political reality where campaign finance is utterly dominant, gerrymandering may not be the villain some good government reformers make it out to be. But it is almost certainly an accomplice to the crime.

Print This Article
Ben Wofford
Ben Wofford ‘14 is a History concentrator and an Associate Editor at BPR. He is one of the magazine’s co-founders.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.