o create an inkblot, the type used by psychiatrists to determine the emotional state of their patients, you simply drop a blot of ink on a piece of paper in a random pattern and fold it down the middle. The result is an otherworldly shape, onto which subjects can project their own hopes, fears and desires. To create a gerrymandered congressional district requires complex computer algorithms, detailed census data and bucket loads of cynicism. The end result is much the same.
Gerrymandering, the redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts to maximise the political benefit to one political party, is as old as America itself. The first example occurred in 1788, when Patrick Henry designed an unnatural district in an effort to defeat his rival James Madison in Virginia’s first congressional election. The practice takes its name from Elbridge Gerry, who as governor of Massachusetts in 1812 signed a bill allowing his party to draw state senate districts to favour his own party. One of those districts looked like a salamander, earning it the nickname “gerry-mander.”
Today, it has become a central part of the political process. Every 10 years, boundaries are redrawn in theory to reflect new census data. Redistricting is due to take place again this year, and could have an enormous impact on the political landscape over the coming decade.
The idea behind redistricting is that the boundaries should reflect the population in order to better represent them. In practice, however, it rarely works out that way. In most states, instead of being drawn by independent bureaucrats, they are decided by the governing party in the state legislature, which means that political partisans draw districts in such a manner that makes it easier for the governing party to win.
Today, although Democrats control Washington, Republicans hold more state legislatures and can therefore redraw more boundaries to their advantage. The GOP’s huge victories in state legislatures in 2010, when the boundaries were last redrawn, allowed the party to gerrymander districts across the country. Democrats failed to make a dent in that control in statehouse elections in November, and so Republicans have the opportunity to draw lines for 181 seats in the House, compared to 49 for Democrats.
Gerrymandering is achieved in two ways: “cracking” separates a particular voting group across two or more districts, reducing their political power by dispersing them, and “packing,” which is the name for cramming a particular voting group into one district so they become dominant in one district and voiceless outside of it.
These methods create some truly absurd-looking congressional districts. There is Ohio’s “snake on the lake,” which is connected at one point by a bridge. There is also a “broken-winged pterodactyl” in Maryland.
The names may be fun, but gerrymandering is a serious business. It disenfranchises people by weakening their voting power and has been used in the past to target voters of colour. It leaves large sections of society cut off from the political process.
A strange shape may not necessarily mean a district is gerrymandered, of course. And some of the worst gerrymandered places may seem quite normal to the naked eye. But a strange shape should at least act as an “alarm bell,” according to Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
“The key is to try to understand why the district looks the way that it does. Is it following the way a community is distributed across an area? And this is particularly relevant for communities of colour that have faced residential segregation and have often been pushed to say the outskirts of town, or is it just an attempt to link as many people who prefer one party in a single district?” says Rudensky.
That said, at least one study has found evidence to suggest that the more “squiggly” a district is, the more likely it is to have been gerrymandered. Silicon Valley Data Science found that “districts are less compact (more squiggly) when one party controls the redistricting process" and "electorates in less compact districts tend to be overly skewed towards one party, providing some validation that the motivation of drawing these districts is to achieve specific distributions of voters."
So how should districts be drawn? Rudensky says independent commissions — which some states are already using — are the way forward.
“A redistricting process should put people first and should understand what the political needs are for different regions of the state. And try to use that as the organising principle, rather than trying to manufacture a certain composition for a congressional delegation or a state legislature,” he says.
“You don’t want individuals to be able to make choices that impact everyone where there is a really strong personal incentive to produce particular outcomes. That’s why this idea of independent commissions, composed of people who are at arm’s length from politics to take care of this task has been so appealing to so many people.”
So how did you do? Can you tell the difference between an inkblot and a gerrymandered congressional district?
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