Whither the Gerrymander?

by James Allison

gerrymander-storyGerrymandering—named for Elbridge Gerry, a distinguished American statesman of the Federalist period—is the practice of drawing election districts so as to benefit particular political party. The specific aim is to gain more seats in the legislature than the party’s popular vote would merit. It’s a simple sort of political thievery, but one that happens to undermine both the practice and the fundamental American principle of representative government. It is nothing new: Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty, or give tried to gerrymander James Madison (“Father of the Constitution”) out of a seat in the very first U.S. Congress. But the practice has grown both more widespread and more effective in recent years by means of computer technology, and is now a serious threat to representative government—sufficiently serious to have alarmed millions of voters and to draw the scrutiny of several federal courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States.

How does it work? The opportunity arises every ten years, following the U.S. census, when federal law requires that states adjust their election districts so that all districts have about the same population. It’s the state governments that control this re-districting adjustment, most of which, Indiana included, let their state legislatures draw the new maps. Thus, every ten years the party in power in those states is presented with the chance, perhaps the temptation, to gerrymander the new districts in its favor.

How is it done exactly? It pretty much comes down to one simple concept, the concept of the wasted vote. A wasted vote is a vote in excess of the number needed to win an election—usually a simple majority, 50% of the votes plus one. The idea is to draw your district maps in such a way that they pack opposition voters into relatively few districts. That way, the opposition might, for example, win one seat by a big 60-40 margin (wasting 9 votes), while the party that mapped the districts win three seats by 51-49 apiece (wasting zero votes). That is how a party can win more than its fair share of seats in the legislature or Congress. It might even parlay a minority of the popular vote into a majority of the seats—as in this hypothetical example, where 48% of the voters (193/400) win 75% of the seats (3/4). Who can blame those Wisconsin voters, similarly deprived of their fair representation, for having brought their grievance to the highest court in the land (Gill v. Whitford)? In that case, Republicans won 61% of the statehouse seats with only 49% of the popular vote. The Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear both that case and a similar one brought by Maryland Republicans about a district in their state allegedly gerrymandered by Democrats.

Note that the constitutional status of gerrymandering is not in doubt: Back in 1986 the Court ruled that gerrymandering violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. What the Court then left in doubt was the judicial standard for the practice: In plain English, how can we recognize a gerrymander when we see one? But since 1986 several objective measures have been developed as plausible judicial standards, and the Court may soon rule on their validity as such.

The extinction of our gerrymander might improve our attitude toward elections. It could use some improvement. In 2016, many Hoosiers had little incentive to come out and vote for state legislative offices. Thanks partly to our gerrymander, too many state races were ho hum strolls with no competition: In 32 out of 100 House races, and 8 out of 25 Senate races, the candidate “ran” unopposed. In that year, when we were supposed to elect a president, the Hoosier voter turnout was a paltry 58%. It was even worse in 2014, only 29%—the lowest in the nation. If the gerrymander deadens representative government, it also creates safe seats whose occupant can win every time by pleasing just one side, over and over again.

How can we hasten the extinction of Indiana’s political gerrymander? We can join the fight for an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission by joining our fellow citizens in a coalition. The two leads in this organization are the Indiana League of Women Voters, and Common Cause of Indiana. The contact for All IN For Democracy (Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting) is jvaughn@commoncause.org.