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Thomas Weil  details the definition, application, and consequences of Gerrymandering as a political tool for members of our congresses to stay in office and advance their own political agendas.

In 1787, the framers of the Constitution of the United States created, in Article 1, Section 2, the means by which the People might be represented democratically.  In particular, they created the House of Representatives, in which appropriately qualified voters could express their wish to have someone represent their collective will in the national government. To help adjust for population growth and shifts, the Constitution provided for a census every decade, to insure that all residents are equally represented, no matter where they might live.  To emphasize the federalist nature of the United States, the Constitution then devolved upon the states the responsibility, prior to the next biannual election following a Census, to rebalance the apportioned number of seats, based on population, within that state.  Various safeguards to protect and extend civil and voting rights were added by the 14thth (1868), 24thth (1964) and 26thth (1971) Amendments, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Soon thereafter, politicians and power brokers recognized the potential for mischief.  In fact, even before Virginia ratified the Constitution to join the Union, Patrick Henry persuaded his colleagues in the legislature to shape the nascent 5th Congressional District in such a way that James Madison and James Monroe would face one another, in the hope that Henry’s enemy, Madison, would be defeated .

The Massachusetts legislature in 1812 attempted to draw districts that favored the Democratic-Republicans over the Federalists in races for that state’s Senate.  One district in Essex County was created so curiously that it was thought to resemble a salamander.  Even though his direct involvement in the process was small, the governor, Elbridge Gerry, who signed the law, was tarred with the association.  The evocative term, gerrymander, was born, to describe political processes whereby districts are created whose contours defy all explanation except political gain.

While the Democratic-Federalists won an outsized number of Massachusetts senate seats in 1812, popular discontent over the War of 1812 and the obvious gerrymandering led to Gerry’s own defeat that year.  The effect of the Virginia and Massachusetts partisan district-drawing efforts were short-lived.

More recently, and especially since the census of 2010 required re-districting, gerrymandering may have hit new and disturbing heights, with more long-lasting effects.  While the Republicans have been more successful, the Democrats have been equally enthusiastic in using a variety of tools, including sorting voters down to the household level, to redraw as many congressional districts as possible.  This sorting – this gerrymandering – means that in a large number of congressional districts, there is less and less need to appeal, not just to the other side, but even to the middle of the political, social, or economic spectrum.

In a recent analysis, Samuel Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium has shown that, in the 2012 election – for only the second time since World War II – the party that won the most overall votes for Congress did not win the majority of House seats (Democratic candidates received 1.5 million more votes than Republicans; Republicans, 234 seats, Democrats, 201).  His calculations suggest that partisan gerrymandering can be three to four times more potent than any population shifts or clustering within a state.  As he notes, “redistricting in a handful of states can generate a greater deviation from symmetry than population clustering in all fifty states combined.” (Wang SS,  “Three Tests for Practical Evaluation of Partisan Gerrymandering,” 

Wang proposes three statistical tests to evaluate – simply, accurately, and reliably – a redistricting plan for gerrymandering.  First, a test to assess whether an election, after redistricting, was disproportional relative to simulation of seats versus state or national votes cast, and whether the outcome favors the re-districting party.  Second, a test of whether the outcome of the election is lopsided, since, in most gerrymandered states, the targeted party tends to win lopsided victories in a small number of seats – compared to the overall distribution of their votes across the state – and the party that draws the map, wins more narrowly, but beyond the proportion of their vote within the state.  Third, a test to assess whether the result could reliably have arisen by chance and how reliably the redistricting party wins.  In all cases, no maps are needed; but, considerations such as federal constraints, like the Voting Rights Act, or state restraints, can be accommodated.  Wang and Mark Tengi have developed an online application to apply these tests, which is freely available 

Among many concerns about our national and state government – voter disinterest, gridlock, incivility and excess partisanship, leading to political paralysis – the pernicious and potentially long-lasting effects of modern gerrymandering may be the most corrosive to our representational government. In a recent analysis, from September 2016, the non-partisan, independent Cook Political Report suggests that only 36 of the 435 races for the House of Representatives can be considered competitive  And many, if not most, of the non-competitive races involve incumbents or essentially single-party races created by the state re-districting process.

Why is this important?   

In a gerrymandered society, our representatives have little incentive to represent us, to reach out to members of the opposite party, or to handle intractable or even difficult problems.

Furthermore, as former Representative John Tanner (D-TN) has observed, partisan redistricting has “imposed a parliamentary model on a representative system.  In a parliamentary system, voting along strict party lines is rational, since one party holds the reins of legislative and executive power.  However, in a representative democracy, it is corrosive – if not destructive.  Tanner notes further, gerrymandering has done “two things.  First, it’s made it virtually impossible to compromise.  And, second, as we’ve seen…it’s damn near abolished the ability and responsibility of Congress to hold the executive branch of the same party accountable….We’re totally abdicating our responsibility for checks and balances” (quoted in, Draper R, ‘The League of Dangerous Mapmakers“)

Incumbents in Congress, who benefit from the system, have little incentive to change the system; so, they point to redistricting as being a state issue in our confederation (Article 1, Section 2).  The Supreme Court has not been able to establish consensus when confronted with cases of potential bias.  The Justices also prefer to avoid thorny political issues; again, they have traditionally cast it as a state sovereignty issue except in an egregious case that violates Amendments 14, 24, 26 or the Voting Rights Act.

Thus, it is up to individual citizens to push for non-partisan redistricting commissions, that are insulated from the state legislative process.  And, given the impartial nature of statistics, to combine pre-implementation modeling strategies that can be used to assess a plan’s potential effect.  A preventive regime is better than an invasive procedure, just as it is vital to quit smoking now or never start, rather than to give chemotherapy after the cancer has metastasized.  I suggest that mathematical tools be implemented, in tandem with non-partisan commissions, in every state, like those described by Wang , Chen and Rodden, or Cho and Liu, and others, which may or may not include cartographic analyses .  

The public needs to rise to the challenge President Obama issued in this year’s State of the Union message, to end “the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around.”  

And, as the example of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission shows, reform is possible:  since 2010, congressional districts in the state are more competitive, margins of victory are smaller and more reflective of the population in those districts and the state, and incumbents have been more vulnerable than for the past.

 The time to recapture the value of every citizen and every vote without shady redistricting for the advancement of the interests of greedy politicians who do not truly represent the people of our nation.

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Thomas Weil

Thomas Weil was a Yale Young Global Scholar in 2016.

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