Democracy in America, part 1: What's wrong with gerrymandering?

Introducing a system that enables the powerful to cheat democracy and to disenfranchise voters.

Stein Ringen
20 October 2014

American democracy has always been messy, rough and unruly. The political process has suffered under rampant manipulation, cheating and corruption. Even so, democracy has delivered and made America not only the world’s supreme power but also its lighthouse socially and culturally. Today, by common consensus, the American political system is dysfunctional and Washington bogged down in gridlock. This week's series of articles by Stein Ringen explores the state of democracy in America, covering gerrymandering and electoral fairness, presidential power and the use of signing statements, court activism and the Supreme Court, the incapacity of Congress, and the health of democracy overall.

The argument of these articles is that the present predicament is new. Dysfunction strikes deeper than good old rough politics. It is not only a matter of disorder in Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court. Beneath is a problem of power. The disorder that is visible in governance is a result of power being sucked out of the constitutional system and of a political culture that has abandoned inclusiveness and fairness. In a recent interview in London, Hillary Rodham Clinton said (in a matter of fact way), “our democracy is not working” (with Channel 4 News, on July 4 no less). If so, is the consequence not only dysfunction in Washington but also decline for America?

When the American voters go to the polls on November 4, they will elect 435 members of Congress, all of whom have to stand for election every second year. But in almost all of the districts the outcome will long since have been decided and there is no competition on election day.

As many as 369 seats are entirely safe (201 for the Republicans and 169 for the Democrats) and another 26 almost safe. That leaves 40 seats in the middle that are up for grabs. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia (the source of these numbers) classifies only 9 congressional seats as ‘toss-ups.’

The safe seats are in districts with a distinct demography. Depending on the economic, racial, ethnic or age-wise composition of the district population, there may be a safe majority one way or the other. In districts with a mixed demography, the election can go either way.

There are many reasons why districts are distinct in demography. People who resemble each other cluster together in where they live. The rich like to have other rich people as neighbours, the poor must live where they can afford to, retirees move to comfortable retirement areas and so on.

An additional reason is gerrymandering. To gerrymander is to manipulate the boundaries of an election district so as to advantage one party. The American system is perfect for this trickery (although gerrymandering occurs in many other democracies as well). Early in each decade, following the census, congressional election districts are redrawn as a result of population movements since the last census. And so are election districts for state senators and representatives. The authority over redistricting is in each state. Who controls the state, controls redistricting. There is therefore a strong incentive to gerrymander, first within the state so as to win or hold control of the statehouse, and then to use that power to gerrymander congressional districts to the benefit of one’s own side.

Gerrymandering is an original sin that is as old as democracy in America. (The word was coined as a way of criticising Governor Gerry’s redrawing of the Massachusetts state senate election districts in 1812.) The habit is as prevalent today as it ever was. Congressional districts from one state to another look bizarre when mapped out, stretching up and down and back and forth across the state, zigzagging the boundaries so as to include, exclude or cut through neighborhoods as they go. The problem is probably getting more acute. Party strategists are getting more savvy and competent, and have better date and computer tolls to work with. Small but strategic twigs of district borders can add up to big effects.

The extent of gerrymandering cannot be specified since district borders may be manipulated more or less. But there is enough of it to affect election outcomes. In the 2012 congressional elections, the Democrats won 51 percent of the House vote but fell 17 seats short of a majority. Political scientists have estimated that they lost somewhere between 5 and 15 seats as a result of gerrymandering. In the absence of gerrymandering, more congressional districts would be up for grabs on election day, perhaps twice as many.

Gerrymandering causes a range of democratic problems:

-       It contributes to increasing the number of safe seats. That some seats are safe is unavoidable but is nevertheless awkward. Voters decide which party wins but not the person who will be their representative. In these seats, the real political battle is over the nomination, not the election. Nominations are usually decided by a minority of activists, and activists are more likely than the average voters to be from their party’s extreme fringe. Nominations can more easily be manipulated than elections, for example by organised moneyed interests. Voters on the non-winning side will feel their vote to be worthless. Gerrymandering contributes both to low voter turn-outs and to a polarised Congress.

-       Gerrymandering is to cheat on democracy and to undermine the principle of one-person-one vote. In a district that has been manipulated, the election is reduced to a mere ritual to verify the pre-determined result.

-       Gerrymandering is to cheat designated groups in the power of their vote. One form of gerrymandering is to split a group, say a predominantly black neighbourhood, between two districts, thereby reducing their block vote into a small minority in each district.

-       It contributes to bringing politics and democracy into disrepute. A system that enables and allows the holders of power to cheat on democracy and that operates so as to disenfranchise voters, does not deserve respect.

-       Basically, gerrymandering moves political power from the onstage arena of voting into backstage arenas of manipulation.

In the majority of states, the redrawing of district boundaries is in the power of the state legislature. In these states, there will be gerrymandering. In New York, the lawmakers and governor signed off district maps in 2012 that, said the New York Times, “were carefully designed to keep the legislators safely in their jobs.” In Florida earlier this year, a judge ruled that the Republicans had illegally redrawn the state’s congressional districts in a way that “made a mockery” of fairness and ordered two districts to be redrawn. In an extreme example, in North Carolina in 2012 the Democrats won 51 percent of the House vote but only four of thirteen representatives.

The problem is easy to solve by taking the drawing of district boundaries out of the hands of self-interested politicians. In about twenty states, the legislatures have delegated some authority over the drawing of district lines to redistricting commissions. Some of these, however, are set up so as to still give the majority party final control. Six states have delegated the authority over state district borders to nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions. The authority over both state and congressional district borders has been delegated to bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions in only seven (or eight) states – Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington (and sort of Iowa).

A rainbow flag flies from San Francisco City Hall the day Prop 8 was argued at the US Supreme Court

California's Supreme Court. Demotix/Steve Rhodes. All rights reserved. California is often held up as the good example. Here, starting with redistricting ahead of the 2012 elections, the authority now sits with a commission consisting of 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans and 4 independents. Decisions require a majority in each of the three groups. The experience in the first round is good. The commission has worked orderly and efficiently and its decisions have stood up to challenge in the state Supreme Court. Attempts to overturn the new order have petered out. The state now has more competitive districts and more turn-overs in elections. The electoral process has gained in legitimacy.

There should be no rational opposition to introducing redistricting by commission in all states. Gerrymandering is in some states to the benefit of the Democrats and in others to the Republicans. Either party, or no party, could win or lose overall in a reformed system. The clear winner would be American democracy. However, since there are strong local interests in not reforming, it is not going to happen on a state by state basis, at least for a very long time.

Reform would therefore depend on Congress imposing a fair method of redistricting on the states. My recommendation would be a federal law with three main components: a set of rules and principles for the drawing of district borders, nonpartisan redistricting commissions in each state, and a federal commission of oversight that would also serve as the institution of appeal. However, in its present state of dysfunction, Congress is not likely to take any initiative to rid American democracy of the blemish of gerrymandering. This will therefore remain another one of the many reforms Congress should make but will be unable to do.    

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