GERRYMANDERING 101



Gerrymandering has been around since the early years of the United States.  The term was first used in 1812 to describe abuses in the method used by the governor of Massachusetts to draw congressional districts.   In a political cartoon, some of Governor Elbridge Gerry’s districts looked like salamanders. Political opponents quickly coined the term “Gerrymander” and the word has been a part of politics ever since.


By legal necessity, congressional districts must be redrawn to reflect population shifts.  We have 435 members of the House of Representatives.  They are to be assigned based on population.  Each state is guaranteed at least one representative no matter how many people live in that state.  Currently we should have approximately one representative for every 600,000 people. Wyoming has fewer than 600,000 people but still is entitled to 1 representative.  Montana has over 900,000 people but receives only one representative.


Populations shift and a census is done every 10 years.  In the average Baby Boomer’s lifetime, Florida has seen its number of congressmen increase from 8 to 25.  California has grown from 25 to 53.  Ohio’s delegation has fallen from 23 to 18.


Populations change within a state and the districts must be redrawn to make each district as equal in population as possible.  After all, representatives represent people, not land.  Sometimes the process is misused by the party in power to gain political advantage.  Since many people identify with one party over another, political scientists can identify areas as to their likely vote.  Past elections and polls can pretty well establish the likely vote.


To best explain this, we will create a new state called brilliantly, “New State.”  In another stroke of genius, we will establish that this state is equally split between the Red Party and the Blue Party.  Our new addition is entitled to 8 representatives.









Obviously, it is unlikely that any state would look like this and have such convenient boundaries. We’re exaggerating to make a point.  Nothing is foolproof or definitely predictable.  In our real world, Democrats can be elected from Republican districts and vise-versa.






In a fair and non-partisan world, we might expect districts to look like this.  We’ll ignore geographic aberrations and other considerations such as ethnicity and cultural centers.  Ethnicity sometimes enters the equation in drawing districts but we’re just explaining the process here. 


Legislators in New State have drawn 8 reasonable districts.  Not considering the personal appeal of candidates or other factors, we would expect Blue and Red to have a good chance to win 4 districts each.  Two would be in play.


What happens if the Red Party has control of the process?  We could get this:





As you can see, the Red Party has a solid majority in districts A, C, E, F, G and H. and Blue is likely to win B and D.  Of course, both must still field viable candidates and conduct campaigns. 


What happens if the Blue Party is in control?





Everything changes with Blue in control.  Six districts are now likely to fall to them.  Red has the advantage in only 2 districts.


In both scenarios, 50 per cent of the citizens get only 25% of the representation.  In the interest of fairness, lets see an exploded view of Blue’s work:








Notice Blue has a 5 to 3 advantage (or better) in Districts A, B, C, D, E and G.  Red should win F and H.


We see very similar “Gerrymanders” and a similar unfairness to half the people in the state.  There are many factors that could legitimately enter into drawing districts and we have used an extreme example of the process here.


Similar Gerrymandering has been practiced by both major political parties.  So what is so bad? In our democratic republic we give enormus power to government with the idea the elected officials will represent us equally.  In today's highly charged partisan world the idea of representation becomes swallowed up by a "winner take all" and "to the victor belongs the spoils" mentality.  In my examples above a party could get 75% of the legislative seats despite having only 50% of the voters.  Do you remember the slogan: "No taxation without representation." It's a concept Americans once struggled for.

These graphics were used as part of a presentation on the subject before the California State Assembly at Sacramento.