Gerrymandering is arguably one of the biggest threats to American democracy. It allows the political party in power every ten years to choose their voters for the next decade. By redrawing districts, party leaders can silence dissenters and over-represent the minority. While both political parties are guilty of this, the Republican victories in 2010 allowed them to ensure stability for their politicians for the entire decade which has allowed them to govern in a manner inconsistent with the beliefs of Americans.
The redistricting of states is required every ten years by the US Constitution in Article 1 Section 2. It says that the number of representatives shall be chosen based off of population as determined by the census. Because of migratory patterns of the population, districts have to change and evolve to reflect that. This is a problem as old as our democracy. The first gerrymandered district was drawn in 1810 under the supervision of Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. He wanted to ensure party security for the Democratic-Republicans and help pass a redistricting measure that favored the party. (University of Groningen)
This problem has prevailed throughout the centuries but has recently picked up national attention because of the obvious imbalance in the belief of representatives and their constituents. In 2014, 44 percent of voters in Pennsylvania voted for a Democrat; however, more than two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s representatives are Republican. Similarly, in Ohio, about 40 percent of voters selected a Democrat, and yet, 75% of their representatives are Republicans (Last Week Tonight). This glaring discrepancy shows the problems and consequences of our democracy’s structure.
Gerrymandering isn’t a complicated practice, there are only a few ways leaders gerrymander the districts. They are stacking, cracking, and packing. Stacking focuses on diluting a high-concentrated area of minority-party voters by flooding that district with majority-party voters so that they out number the minority population. Cracking, on the other hand, takes the high-concentrated area and splits it up into various neighboring districts, thus making their collective vote weaker. Finally, if the population is so concentrated heavily concentrated it cannot be stacked or cracked, then packing is the chosen method. This method draws the district around the minority-party concentration to ensure that they only get one representative and they cannot influence other district elections (American Civil Liberties Union).
These three tactics are used to varying degrees across the country by members of both political parties. Politicians are able to stack, crack, and pack with almost surgical precision thanks to Big Data. In an interview with US News & World Report, John Akred, CTO for Silicon Valley Data Science, “Big data is allowing a much finer-grain understanding of who [voters] are, how they'll vote and where they are. You can craft legislative districts with a precision [that can predetermine the outcome].” This highly granular data has contributed to victories in all levels of government and has led to a large discrepancy between the people’s opinions and their leaders. To quote Akred, “If you accept a core tenet of democracy is the representatives are chosen by the people to represent them, when the representatives are drawing their constituencies in a way that allows them to choose their constituents, you've reversed the dynamic quite fundamentally. It fundamentally undermines [democracy]” (Williams, 2017).
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
The only certain way to end gerrymandering for good is by making our voting districts permanent. And, constitutionality aside, that will cause even more problems with our democracy down the line. There are, however, a few methods that will reduce its effectiveness.
One such method is through mathematics. In his TED talk, “Engineering Elections without Bias,” Brian Olson demonstrates how his computer algorithm can generate maps according to compactness (Olson 2016). One of the tell-tale signs of gerrymandered districts are strange shapes that twist and out of otherwise sensical boundaries. Compact districts aim to stop this. Proponents of this technique focus almost solely on geography to draw their districts, which makes for a very attractive looking map.
However, there are problems with this method. Maps are drawn by geographical based compactness ignore the communities of interest and risk splitting those people up, potentially diluting their beliefs. In fact, recognizing this as a shortcoming of compactness, a Virginia lawmakers lead a bipartisan effort that would set new criteria for redistricting, under which “lines could not be drawn to favor or disfavor any political party, incumbent, or candidate, and should protect communities of interest and minority groups” (Petry 2016).
Secondly, algorithms are not, as Olson claims, free from bias. The variables calculated by algorithms and the weight applied to them are pre-determined by an individual. This human factor still leaves room for political bias to arbitrarily weight variables more or less to gain an advantage.
Another way to limit the influence of gerrymandering on our democracy is through independent commissions. An independent commission would take the responsibility of redistricting out of the hands of legislatures and place it into a group of people who have no political agenda. However, especially in today’s political climate, it is difficult to remove political bias. In the case of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, four of the five commissioners are selected by the two parties. The commission itself selects the fifth. Because the parties are still involved at some level, it shows that politics won’t be entirely removed from the process.
These methods have been slow to adopt. This is due in large part to lawmaker’s resistance to being removed from the process. Arizona’s electorate voted in the commission in a 2000 ballot initiative, Proposition 106. This amended the constitution, “removing redistricting authority from the Arizona Legislature and vesting it in an independent commission” (Arizona Redistricting Commission). In 2015, the Arizona legislature sued the Commission because they claim voters didn't have the ability to remove a responsibility of the legislature. Even though the legislature still had a say in who was on the commission, it removed their ability to choose their voters. The Supreme Court heard the case and ruled 5-4 in favor of the Commission. Justice Ginsberg stated, “[P]artisan gerrymanders,” this Court has recognized, “[are incompatible] with democratic principles” (Justia).
Ranked Choice Voting
A third way requires a complete change to the way we vote in elections. One of the biggest flaws in our democracy, and a contributor to the disproportionate representation of American voters, is our winner-take-all system. This system is even more dangerous in a two-party system. Ranked Choice Voting address this concern. When a voter enters the polling booth, instead of selecting one candidate, they rank all the candidates by their preference. Then the first ranked votes are tallied. If there is no majority, the lowest ranked candidate’s supporters are redistributed to their second choice. This process occurs until a candidate receives 51% of the vote (FairVote.org).
Since 1998, no governor in Maine has ever won with the majority. This is because third party candidates bleed votes from other, mainstream candidates (Press Herald). Realizing this problem, — coupled with embarrassing and offensive comments from Governor LePage, who has never been in the good graces of the majority of Mainers — voters were faced with a ballot initiative, Question 5, in the November 8th election (Seelye 2017). Fifty-two percent approved the measure. However, this created a constitutional crisis in Maine. According to the Main Supreme Judicial Court, Question 5 violated Maine’s constitution. The problem is that the Constitution grants victory to the candidate with “a plurality of all votes returned,” Ranked Choice Voting by its nature doesn’t grant victory until a majority is reached (Ballotpedia). Lawmakers are now faced with one of two options, repeal the initiative or amend the Constitution.
While districts still play a role, and those districts must be drawn every ten years, gerrymandering is still possible. However, Ranked Choice Voting throws far too many variables into the equation for our algorithms, data experts, and partisan map-drawers to predict how the electorate will behave. It also limits “strategic voting,” the act of voting against a particular candidate as opposed to one you support. By doing this, it will also provide more opportunities for third-party candidates to win.
None of the above recommendations would solve the problem of gerrymandering. Each would make it better, but there will always be the same political games every ten years. However, there is one current piece of legislation that is the best chance of improving the situation, HR 3057 - the Fair Representation Act. This act, introduced to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice by Rep. Don Beyer would combine both independent commission proposals and Ranked Choice Voting. Also, this bill also lays out criteria for how a district can be drawn which, among other factors, respect geography, communities of interest, and compactness (Fair Representation Act). This bill would cause a massive overhaul to the American political system and through its multi-pronged approach to the problem, as the best bet at restoring the ideals of American democracy and representing its people fairly.
Despite growing grassroots support for the solutions mentioned above, it is unlikely these will pass anytime soon. Most lawmakers, as evidenced by the Arizona legal battle and Maine’s constitutional crisis, are unwilling to put their districts at risk. Gerrymandering has helped them achieve a job security unheard of elsewhere in the American economy, and why sacrifice that? For centuries the practice of gerrymandering has subjugated our democracy to the benefit of a few elite politicians. It is only now, through long, hard-fought battles between the people and their representatives have this practice started to wane. For the time being, this grassroots effort may be the only way gerrymandering ends for good. The Fair Representation Act is a significant step by Federal lawmakers; however, it is only sponsored by Democrats and is unlikely to move forward in a Republican held congress — especially two cycles away from another redistricting.
American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). Stacking, Cracking and Packing. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from https://www.aclu.org/video/stacking-cracking-and-packing
Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. (n.d.). Retrieved August 09, 2017, from http://azredistricting.org/About-IRC/FAQ.asp
Ballotpedia. (n.d.). Maine Ranked Choice Voting Initiative, Question 5 (2016). Retrieved August 10, 2017, from https://ballotpedia.org/Maine_Ranked_Choice_Voting_Initiative,_Question_5_(2016)
Fair Representation Act, H.R. 3057, 115th Cong.
FairVote.org. (n.d.). Ranked Choice Voting / Instant Runoff. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from http://www.fairvote.org/rcv#rcvbenefits
Just. (n.d.). Ariz. State Legislature v. Ariz. Indep. Redistricting Comm'n 576 US ___ (2015). Retrieved August 09, 2017, from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/576/13-1314/opinion3.html
Last Week Tonight. (2017, April 09). Retrieved August 10, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-4dIImaodQ
Olson, B., & TedTalks. (2016, June 22). Retrieved August 09, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EC3L2lSSONQ
Petry, E. (2016, January 25). Redistricting Reform Gains Momentum in 2016. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/redistricting-reform-gains-momentum-2016
Press Herald. (n.d.). How Maine voted: Governor's races 1990 - 2014. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from http://www.pressherald.com/interactive/maine-voted-governors-races-1990-2010/
Seelye, K. Q. (2017, May 23). Ranked-Choice Voting System Violates Maine’s Constitution, Court Says. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/us/maine-ranked-choice-elections-voting.html
University of Groningen. (n.d.). A Biography of Elbridge Gerry 1744-1814. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/elbridge-gerry/
Williams, J. P. (2017, July 28). The Downside of Data. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-07-28/big-data-and-the-gerrymandering-of-america