An 1812 political cartoon satirizing the bizarre shape of legislative districts in MA after Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill redrawing them in favor of his own political party. photo courtesy Fair Districts PA
In an ironic twist of history, Elbridge Gerry, fifth vice president of the United States under James Madison, was at one time opposed to the very idea of political parties. But in 1812 prior to his becoming vice president and while governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed a bill that redrew Massachusetts state senate election districts to benefit his party and that when mapped vaguely resembled a salamander; hence the portmanteau and practice of gerrymandering or designing legislative districts to be favorable to one party or another.
Fast forward a few centuries. Polarization and partisanship are more rampant now than perhaps at any time in American history. But gerrymandering is bipartisan, and it’s alive and well. Not only is it alive and well, it’s thriving-thriving because it works. Elections in the modern era are essentially "rigged" because districts’ boundaries are manipulated to favor one party over the other.
Take, for example, our national elections over the past five years. The series of charts below show how, because of the way legislative districts are drawn, Republicans are winning a far larger percentage of seats in comparison to their margins in actual voting.
Because of gerrymandering, percentages of seats won are not in line with the actual vote. The graph above shows that even though House Democrats won more votes in 2012 by a 1.3% margin, Republicans gained 34 seats.
The charts below show similar results.
While gerrymandering is prevalent across the country, Wisconsin is currently in the national spotlight. The situation in Wisconsin is particularly egregious because of how aggressive the redistricting efforts have been there. Wisconsin is a battleground state, with races often won by only a few percentage points. But you wouldn’t know that by looking only at the number of seats gained. In 2012, Republicans took 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly with only 48.6% of the vote; in 2014, they won 63 seats with only 52% of the vote statewide. According to the Brennan Center for Justice this is an odd outcome in a state like Wisconsin, “where statewide elections are very close, and voters for both major parties are fairly evenly spread across the state. Voters in Wisconsin, like voters in battleground states in general, are not starkly clustered by party. For example, there are substantial pockets of Democratic voters in places like Vernon County and other rural and small towns, where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton nearly evenly split the vote. The fact that Wisconsin’s Legislature doesn’t reflect this political diversity is, in large part, intentional.
"The same sort of aggressive gerrymandering has distorted the U.S. Congress as well. These 'extreme maps' account for 16 to 17 Republican seats in the current Congress, a sizable portion of the 24 seats Democrats would need to take back the House.”
The circumstances in Wisconsin have taken us all the way to the steps of the Supreme Court. In October, for the first time in a decade, the highest court in the land will look at partisan gerrymandering when it takes up Gill v. Whitford, a case in which voters are challenging Wisconsin’s state assembly map as unconstitutional. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said Gill v. Whitford may be the “most important” case the justices will hear next term. The case is so significant because SCOTUS has never set a standard for when gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Last year a panel of federal judges ruled Wisconsin’s redrawing of the map as violating the Constitution. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling of the lower court, it could limit political parties’ ability to redraw electoral maps in their favor when redistricting takes place again after the 2020 Census.
Let's take a look at our own state. If gerrymandering had a poster child, Pennsylvania would be it. In fact PA’s 7th which encompasses part of Berks is often cited as the best, or depending on how you view it, worst example of district rigging in the country. When looking at constructing electoral maps in PA, it's important to clearly distinguish between congressional and legislative districts. Arthur Naylor of Fair Districts PA tells us why:
"They are not determined in the same manner. Currently, congressional districts in Pennsylvania are determined by normal legislative process in Harrisburg. The congressional district maps are proposed by the majority leadership in Harrisburg, which means that whatever works for the party leadership is the guiding principle in determining congressional districts. The legislative districts are determined by a five member commission appointed by the majority and minority leadership in Harrisburg. In 2021, Democrats will have the opportunity to rig the map ... but only for legislative districts. This is because the fifth member of the commission that determines legislative districts is appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which is now largely Democratic.
Gerrymandering puts communities into different districts. For example, the Wyomissing Borough is divided between Costello (largely Chester County) and Smucker (largely Lancaster County). The city of Reading is part of the same district that includes part of Wyomissing and most of Lancaster County, while the rest of Berks county is divided between three other congressional representatives whose main focus is outside the county. As a whole, Berks County has no real voice or representation in Congress. For the same reasons, gerrymandering diminishes the voice of local businesses and local infrastructure needs."
Naylor points out that "the bills that would fix this in Pennsylvania currently sit in the State Government committees of each chamber of the General Assembly in Harrisburg. SB22 and HB722 would put both congressional and legislative redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, one that would not be able to gerrymander districts to favor any party."
"We need to let the people decide, not the politicians. And first, we need to let the people decide whether to have an independent commission for redistricting ... and four-fifths of Pennsylvanians in fact favor this. We need to move these bills out of committee. We need to do so, now, so that the people of Pennsylvania can decide", says Naylor.
Back to Elbridge Gerry. Why should an arcane concept born in the 19th century from a funny name matter to you and me? Look for the answer to that question and for proof of the axiom “politics makes strange bedfellows” no further than the great state of California (pronounced Cal-lee-for-nee-ah). Yes, I am referring to Mr. Universe/Terminator/Kindergarten Cop himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the Gubernator is not usually one I gravitate toward as my political guru, I was surprised to hear his very cogent argument in a recent interview as to why he’s joined the fight to end gerrymandering. The interviewer asked Mr. Schwarzenegger very bluntly, “How do you make this sexy? How do you make this appealing, the sort of thing people want to talk about?” His response was pedestrian but at the same time pragmatic “The system is fixed. When there is no competition it takes away from performance. Politicians are picking the voters when the voters are supposed to be picking the politicians.”
Though I'm loath to admit it, Arnold’s right. Yes, the politicians are picking the voters but they seldom seem to be picking you or me.
posted by Amy Levengood