Defining Gerrymander. Again.

Brown County League of Women Voters, Board Meeting, 12/10/2018
James Allison

The next gerrymander’s birthday is about two years from now, so this is the time for us all to let our legislators know what we want: A citizens’ redistricting commission independent of the legislature.

— James Allison

What distinguished the new American government from the old hereditary monarchies was its dependence on the consent of the governed, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. That’s a close relative to We the People and representative government.

Of course representative government has been under attack ever since. An early foe, even more dangerous now, was the gerrymander, an engine of dictatorial rule or even minority rule. In 1812 the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, saw a way to jigger an election so even a minority Republican party could win most of the seats in the state legislature. All you had to do was draw the map of election districts with an eye toward partisan advantage. His map resembled a salamander, hence the subsequent name, the gerrymander.

He rightly suffered pangs of conscience, because it was a traitorous act worthy of Benedict Arnold. But the damage was done, and is now greater than ever. It’s so temptingly simple, especially now in our age of computer technology. If you are in charge of drawing the map, all you have to do is pack the maximum number of your opponent’s voters into the smallest number of districts, and spread your own voters more evenly around a larger number of districts. That way, your opponent will waste votes on a small number of big victories, while you take the lion’s share of the seats with a large number of more modest victories.

It’s called “packing,” and it stuck out like a sore thumb in our November 2018 election for all 100 members of our state assembly. I found that 32 of the 100 seats were completely packed, which means that they were uncontested. All a candidate had to do to win such an election was vote for him or herself; all other votes were superfluous, i.e., wasted. In a district like that, why should any ordinary citizen bother to vote?

It was a classic packing job: The dominant party packed 11 of the 100 districts for itself, but a whopping 21 for the opposition. And it worked like a charm: The dominant party won 55% of the popular vote statewide, but a gargantuan 68% of the 100 seats in the Assembly. The weaker party won 45% of the popular vote, but a piddling 32% of the seats. That’s a dead giveaway for a gerrymandered map of election districts: Just compare the percentage of the popular vote with the percentage of seats won in the legislature.

Indiana has three such maps. The one for the state senate, which had no election this year, has 50 districts. The one for Congress has 9 districts. All 9 seats were up for election last month, when 55% of the popular vote won 78% of those Congressional seats (7/9), and 45% won 22% (2/9).

This is not representative government. But it’s the kind you get if your state puts a partisan state government in charge of the map-drawing—which happens every 10 years following the national census. Until this year, most states did it that way. But in the 2018 election ballot initiatives in four states traded that system for a less partisan system not so controlled by the state government. Those states are Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah. There are similar rumblings in several other states, but Indiana is not one. We are not a citizen initiative state. Our few ballot initiatives are controlled by the legislature. The Indiana constitution says so.

So, what can we do in Indiana? We can keep the personal pressure on our own legislators. There have been rumblings here for redistricting reform, even bills for such, but they’ve never gone anywhere. They come up in one Senate or Assembly committee or another, but fail to make it out of committee or fail to get to the floor for a vote, regular as clockwork. The reason they keep coming up at all is citizen pressure applied directly to the legislators by the only citizens who count: their constituents.

That’s where you and I come in. The next gerrymander’s birthday is about two years from now, so this is the time for us all to let our legislators know what we want: A citizens’ redistricting commission independent of the legislature.