Friday, July 5, 2019

What's Wrong with Gerrymandering?

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” Except for diehard Republicans, that SCOTUS ruling is widely seen as a questionable and damaging ruling for a (small “d”) democratic society. But what’s wrong with gerrymandering? 
A Long-used Partisan Practice
As you know, partisan gerrymandering is the practice of politicians manipulating voting district boundaries to favor one political party over another. As Doug Criss explains in this helpful 6/27 article,
In most states, state legislators and the governor control the once-a-decade line-drawing process. So what happens when one party controls the state House, the state Senate and the governor's mansion? The party usually does everything in its power to draw the lines in a way that favors them and puts their political opponents at a disadvantage.

This practice has a long history. In fact, it goes back to 1810 when Elbridge Gerry was governor of the great state of Massachusetts. A salamander-shaped district was drawn in the northern part of the state, and that helped Gerry’s colleagues hold on to power in the state legislature.
So, Gov. Gerry’s name and the salamander-shaped district were mashed together, and politicians have been practicing gerrymandering, by that name, ever since.
The following simple chart shows how it is possible to manipulate elections by the way the lines are drawn: 
A Recently-used Partisan Practice
Districts for electing U.S. Representatives are based upon the latest census information, and the partisan practice of gerrymandering has been used more widely and more precisely since the 2010 election.
That sordid story is told in the provocative book Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley, former editor-in-chief of
In the Introduction, Daley writes,
This is the story of the audacious Republican plan . . . to create supermajorities for conservative policies in otherwise blue and purple states. This is the story of the actual redrawing of the American political map and of our democracy itself. It’s the story of how Republicans turned a looming demographic disaster into legislative majorities so unbreakable, so impregnable, that none of the outcomes are in doubt until after the 2020 census (pp. xii-xiii).

Daley goes on to declare, “The Democratic majority was ratfucked.” He explains: “In politics, a ‘ratfuck’ is a dirty deed done dirt cheap” (p. xiii). (It was a term used in All the President’s Men, the story of the Watergate scandal.)
After the election of Obama in 2008, the Republicans used gerrymandering to their great advantage following the 2010 census. That was masterminded by Chris Jankowski, who designed REDMAP (the Redistricting Majority Project, explained here.)
A Harmfully-used Partisan Practice
There is no question but that gerrymandering has been used by both political parties. There is also no question but that gerrymandering is not a good thing. Why? Mainly because it is “a body blow to our democracy,” as Dahlia Lithwick put it in a June 27 article.
Even Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion admitted that gerrymandering “leads to results that reasonably seem unjust” and that it is “incompatible with democratic principles.”
Nevertheless, he and the four other conservative justices decided that the federal courts are just not able to deal with the matter.
The other four justices--the three women justices and Justice Stephen G. Breyer--strongly disagreed, and the minority opinion was forcefully stated by Justice Elena Kagan.
Justice Kagan charged, “The gerrymanders here — and others like them — violated the constitutional rights of many hundreds of thousands of American citizens.”
Exactly—and that’s one major reason why gerrymandering is wrong.


  1. I just now saw/read this op-ed piece by Eric Holder in the Washington Post: "If the Supreme Court won’t protect our democracy, voters will." Some will not be able to read it because of the "pay wall," but here is the link to that column (highlight and click):

  2. Agreed! The NY Times has several pieces about this on the homepage today, including this one:

  3. The first response received this morning was from local Thinking Friend Bruce Morgan:

    "Gerrymandering violates the heart of a Democracy, and our Supreme Court failed us in its ruling. Your article is spot on. Thanks, Leroy."

  4. Also before 7:00 this morning I received the following comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments and observations about gerrymandering.

    "I do not agree with the decision of the SCOTUS on this issue since gerrymandering clearly violates the 14th Amendment, an amendment the SCOTUS should be upholding. The problem is where to draw the line (i.e., what constitutes gerrymandering and what does not). My own belief is that independent commissions should be drawing the Congressional and legislative districts, as in Iowa, where the Congressional districts are fairly uniform geometrically.

    "Our own Congressman, Mike Quigley, represents a district whose shape is closer to that of a Chinese dragon than a rectangle. (Dan Rostenkowski represented the district for many years.) I am puzzled by this since our Congressional district and all of the surrounding districts are heavily Democratic. Why then do they have these weird shapes? I do not know. Our alderman's ward is even more convoluted.

    Even without gerrymandering, the Republicans may still have a bit of an advantage since Democrats often win their races by larger majorities than Republicans so that the Republicans end up with more seats than the aggregate vote totals across an entire state would suggest."

    1. Thanks, Eric. -- Yes, I think the solution to the problem will be for states to employ independent commissions to draw the district lines--but the voters may have to demand that that be done, for the Party in power, whichever it may be, will in most cases not want to give up their ability to draw the lines in their favor.

  5. Then there is this comment from Bob Leeper, a local and relatively new Thinking Friend:

    "Thanks Dr. Seat! I am forwarding this to some family members; it is the best display of graphics leading to understanding of how GerryRatf###ing keeps the minority IN the minority."

  6. Our American republic is closely modeled on the ancient Roman republic, which famously finally failed. A few rough edges were smoothed out, but many ancient faults were brought forward. Gerrymandering is one of many faults left unchecked, and it is worth noting, is over 200 years old itself.

    We need to think carefully and deeply about how to find fixes for various ills in American democracy. Rick Perry, of all people, presented a good plan for solving a similar Supreme Court problem. I was surprised since I had thought of the same one, but then realized the math lead inexorably to this answer: Fixed 18-year terms for justices with a replacement picked every two years. Every time we elected a President, we would know we were picking the person to appoint the next two justices. No more excuses to refuse to vote on a justice!

    I feel we need a similar creative breakthrough on gerrymandering. It should be a self-correcting system that would keep the percentage of votes close to the percentage of Congresspersons for each party. One I have toyed with would be to only have 2/3 of seats elected by districts, with the rest elected at large with "victory" apportioned based on total votes in the state for each party. This might even allow some third party members to be elected from the largest states. I offer this as an example, not as a solution, because I still see glitches in my system. Perhaps some mathematicians and political scientists could get together and create a more bullet-proof solution. For now, we can at least publicly acknowledge that gerrymandering is terribly wrong!