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essays

A Gerrymandering Refresher

by Ben Sheehan
December 10, 2018

Ben Sheehan is the founder and Executive Director of OMGWTF. 

What’s ‘gerrymandering’?

It’s the process of drawing U.S. House (Congressional) district lines or state legislative (state house or state senate) district lines to favor one political party over another.

Cool. I don’t understand what you wrote.

Remember how your U.S. Representative (Congressperson) represents your interests in the U.S. House, and your state representative represents your interests in your state house (sometimes called a state assembly), and your state senator represents your interests in your state senate?

…yes?

Each has their own ‘district’, or section of your state, for a specific area of residents. Some states have only one U.S. Representative because they’re so small (called ‘at large’).

So what’s gerrymandering then?

It’s the process of drawing district lines so that one party has an advantage (a.k.a. cheating). Every 10 years, your state representatives and state senators (your state legislators) assemble, review the U.S. Census data for your state, and redraw district lines for Congressional and state legislative districts. They do this because people move within the state, or to another state, or die, so by updating these lines every 10 years, the people in your state are fairly represented. Some states use independent, non-partisan redistricting commissions to draw their lines – but in most states, your state legislators draw them. People agree that districts should be drawn so that they’re competitive (where Democrats or Republicans could win).

But gerrymandering is the process of drawing districts to favor one party. For example, in 2012, Ohio Democratic U.S. House candidates and Ohio Republican U.S. House candidates split the vote almost evenly, but Republicans got 75% of U.S. House seats.

How is that possible?

Two ways. Let’s say that a state has 36 Congressional districts, and one part of the state has a lot of Democrats. If you want Republicans to win, you can draw the lines so Democrats are confined to a few districts, called ‘packing’, so the other districts have mostly Republicans. And if a state has 13 Congressional districts, and one area of the state is concentrated with Democrats, you can draw the lines to divide, or ‘crack’, Democrats into different districts so they’re always a numerical minority.

That’s fucked up.

Well, it gets worse. Sometimes when drawing districts, state legislators have been accused of using race to gerrymander. The idea is that because minorities – say Hispanics and African-Americans – usually vote for Democrats, if you draw the lines based on race, it will have a similar effect with minimizing Democratic votes.

Wow.

Also the examples I used? They’re real. Texas has 36 Congressional districts and a Federal Court said that it’s 35th Congressional district was unfairly drawn to ‘pack’ Hispanic voters. And North Carolina has 13 Congressional districts, and it’s 6th Congressional district – which touches Greensboro (which has a large African-American population) – was redrawn to ‘crack’ the area into multiple districts. These lines even run through North Carolina A&T’s campus, which is the largest historically black public university in the country. So, if you’re a student who moves from one side of the campus to the other, you have to re-register to vote.

Are you kidding? How is this legal?!

Some Federal Courts have said it isn’t, but the Supreme Court – on multiple occasions – has sent cases back to the states, refusing to make a federal law banning partisan gerrymandering. Even when lines seem to be drawn with race in mind, the argument is that the lines are disenfranchising Democrats, not minorities…but it’s kinda obvious what’s going on.

That’s insane. It’s Republicans who are doing this?

Republicans control the majority of state legislatures right now, so it’s happening more often in Republican-controlled states. It happens in Democratic states too (e.g. Maryland, Illinois); but currently Republicans are doing it way more. And it’s the Republican-controlled states that have districts accused of being racially gerrymandered. Needless to say, the racial component taps into an ugly history of voter disenfranchisement in this country.

How do we stop this?

Until there’s a federal law outlawing partisan gerrymandering, it’s up to each state to decide how it draws its lines. Some states have independent redistricting commissions drawing the lines (instead of state legislatures). This year in Michigan, voters passed a ballot measure giving line-drawing responsibilities to citizens rather than legislators. Also, in most states the governor can veto the lines, so some checks and balances exist.

But until we outlaw partisan gerrymandering nationally, or establish an independent redistricting commission in every state, or elect people who believe in fair lines, gerrymandering will continue.

What can I do?

In the next two elections (2019 and 2020), you can support state legislative and gubernatorial candidates who believe in fair lines. If there’s a ballot measure that would create an independent redistricting committee in your state, support that measure. Vote for these candidates and measures. Donate money to support them. Make calls, knock on doors, and convince others to do the same.

Because 2020 is your LAST chance to elect people who will draw fair lines in 2021. And remember, these lines won’t get drawn again until 2031.

Thanks, that was helpful (if long).

I feel the same about democracy.