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Gerrymandering is the creation of electoral districts to achieve a particular demographic balance through the creative use of district boundaries. Most gerrymandering is done to achieve partisan advantage in district-based elections. While gerrymandering can produce districts that are easy for a party to win, it can also give a party an advantage in winning a large number of seats overall. Crucially, though, it cannot do both. As the interest of a political party (as opposed to an individual incumbent official) is to win the largest number of seats, parties will rarely if ever try to create districts in which they win with large vote margins. The increasing presence of safe seats in US politics is not the result of partisan gerrymandering.

Typically ‘gerrymandering’ is evoked when district boundaries become convoluted. The original gerrymander was a Massachusetts state senate district drawn in 1812, blamed on governor Elbridge Gerry* and supposedly shaped like a mythical salamander; a famous political cartoon (depicted at right) by Elkanah Tisdale in the Columbian Centinel (Boston, 1812) helped popularize the term. These convoluted shapes of gerrymandered districts happen when those drawing districts want to include populations in a single district who do not live in a compact area, but are spread out in smaller, disconnected areas. While ‘gerrymandering’ is always employed negatively and taken by many to be an affront to democracy, there is nothing specifically democratic about compact district shapes, and the ability of like-minded voters to select a candidate can be and has been seen as a democratic interest. This is why many electoral democracies either do away with geographic representation, or modify it in some way with at-large proportionality.

The demographic balance of gerrymandering can be about race (for example, the majority-minority districts produced to comply with the US Voting Rights Act), but more often the balance is about political affiliation, and takes into account income, race, culture, and anything else that might affect a district’s political leanings. When two or more parties’ officials agree among themselves to draw the boundaries together, their interests will dictate a map that is advantageous to all incumbents, in which safe seats are the rule. This, however, is not the usual or recent practice of gerrymandering. Most gerrymandering is partisan, and is designed to win a single party as many seats as possible.

A key concept in partisan gerrymandering is efficiency, often considered through “wasted votes”. When an election is over, it does not matter if the margin of victory was 2% or 20%, merely that there was a victory. Theoretically, any votes a candidate receives beyond the bare minimum needed to win are wasted; those voters could have been placed in an adjacent district to help another of its party’s candidates win a seat. Allowing for some small margin of error (a buffer of safety), the smart partisan gerrymanderer will arrange for each district to contain just enough of the party’s supporters to win the district, and will continue distributing its supporters until the party can win all available seats. Only at that point will the party start building districts for safety margins.

Therefore, the first goal of gerrymandering is to break the opponent parties’ voters into small groups, so that no group is large enough to win a single seat. Sometimes that is not possible, either because there are too many of the opponent parties’ voters, or those voters are too concentrated to be broken up. When that is the case, the fallback option is to group all of those opposition voters into as few districts as possible, where they will win by large margins, in effect forcing the opposition to waste its own votes. A small number of districts is sacrificed, so that the gerrymandering party can win all the other districts.

The Republicans have been doing more gerrymandering in the US lately, mostly because of their success in winning control of state legislatures and thus the redistricting process, especially following the 2010 census (but not always confined to that). This has led to further victories and disproportionate representation in Congress and state legislatures. Democrats are aware of the gerrymandering and alarmed at the political strength of the Republicans, and know there is a connection. When some of them see the lopsided victories of many Republican candidates, they attribute these lopsided victories to gerrymandering. In fact, though, Republicans can only have gained disproportionate representation by sacrificing safety for a greater number of seats where they can be at least competitive. This is what they have done.

What then accounts for the increasing margins of victory for both parties in the US? There are two factors. First, people increasingly live around people who are like them politically. Partially this is a result of self-segregation — choosing to live around people who are already like them — and partially it is a result of harmonization — becoming more like the people they live around. The latter is a variant of the “echo chamber” effect; voters only hear from the people who already agree with them, so their views are reinforced, never challenged. Second, the two main parties in the United States are becoming more ideologically consistent. The Republican Party was originally the liberal party in most respects, at a time when the Democratic Party was conservative. Over the last century and a half, the parties have reversed positions. But the change was slow to happen in the South; Southern conservatives tended to be white supremacists, and resented the Republican Party for its role in ending slavery and enforcing Reconstruction.

In the present United States, the Republican Party has two natural advantages in gerrymandering. The first is that the Democratic demographic tends to be more geographically concentrated — Democrats tend to live in central cities, while Republicans live in small towns, rural areas, and exurbs. It is easier to force the Democrats to waste their votes, and sometimes impossible not to. The second advantage is that the inefficient distribution of Democratic voters is often legally required. Because black voters specifically have been discriminated against in many jurisdictions (mostly in the Deep South), those jurisdictions were compelled to create majority-black districts by an interpretation of the Voting Rights Act (giving black voters the right to elect representatives of their own choosing), and must submit all changes in voting laws, including redistricting plans, to the Justice Department for prior approval. (This legal process is currently being contested.) Blacks are a reliable demographic for the Democratic Party; by grouping them into single districts, those black voters are not available to help elect Democrats in other districts.

* The word ‘gerrymandering’ is pronounced with a soft ‘g’ [dʒ], but Elbridge Gerry’s name is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ [ɡ].  


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