Lesson 1 of 4
In Progress

Gerrymandering Versus the “Rules”

Roy Minet November 19, 2022

Gerrymandering is the corrupt practice and process of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in such a manner as to intentionally make the election of candidates from a favored faction easier and more likely.  The “favored faction” normally is a political party.

The practice is not unique to the United States and is centuries old.  Its notoriety increased in 1812 when it received its name.  Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts approved a redistricting map of oddly shaped districts.  A media cartoonist thought one of them resembled a salamander and dubbed it a “Gerry-mander.”  From that, came the process name, “gerrymandering,” which quickly gained widespread acceptance and use.

Packing and Cracking colloquially describes the process.  First, draw as few districts as possible to contain the maximum possible number of opposition voters (packing).  Second, distribute the remaining opposition voters so as to keep them in the minority for as many districts as possible (cracking).

U.S. state legislatures normally have the responsibility for drawing electoral district maps, so the favored faction depends upon the party controlling that legislative body.  Disputes usually are decided by state courts which should be scrupulously neutral, but frequently turn out not to be.  Gerrymandering has been done to favor Democrats, to favor Republicans and even occasionally to favor incumbents with Ds and Rs cooperating to accomplish that result.

Some Restrictions or “Rules” for Drawing Districts

The oldest, most common and most often obeyed restriction is that districts should be contiguous (connected).  Electoral district boundaries must coincide with the boundaries of political jurisdictions such as counties, municipalities and voting precincts.  Surprising though it may be, municipalities and even voting precincts (the smallest jurisdictions) are not always contiguous themselves.  This obviously can be at least a complication if not an outright problem.

A more recent restriction is the one-person-one-vote opinion of the US Supreme Court which held that Congressional districts must have equal populations.  The o-p-o-v descriptor would lead one to think that this means an equal number of voters, so that each vote would carry substantially the same weight.  Many still argue that, but SCOTUS clarified in Evenwel v. Abbott (2016) that the populations should be equal, not the voters.  This derives from interpreting the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to mean equal representation in Congress.  Practice has been to use the total population.  However, it would seem that the “population” should include only US citizens.  The difference may not have been large in the past, but with millions of illegal aliens flooding in across the southern border, it may well be a very significant issue for the next decennial redistricting!

Just how equal district populations have to be is another issue.  Guidance from SCOTUS is that a 10% error would clearly flag a problem.  One might take from that that 5% might be acceptable.  Some have taken it to the ridiculous extreme of attempting plus or minus one (1) person.  That is totally absurd since considerable change and shifting of population is a certainty over the ten-year period between redistrictings.  Targeting less than plus or minus 1% population error for a redistricting should be more than sufficiently accurate.

The population of the US is about 335,512,197 people.  Therefore, the target population for each of the 435 Congressional districts should be 771,292.  Consider that the state of Wyoming has one Congressional district for its entire population of 579,495.  That is a 25% error below the target population; WY residents are very over-represented in Congress and there is absolutely nothing to be done about it!

State guidelines often say that district boundaries should be drawn to minimize the division of political entities, especially counties.  But satisfying the hard requirement for equal populations almost always necessitates the splitting of quite a few.  So apparently, it is OK to divide some political entities, but for some reason, not others?

Guidelines also usually state that districts should be compact.  There are several ways to measure “compactness,” but no such standard has been adopted.  True compactness can be hard to achieve along with all the other requirements.  Since district boundaries must follow boundaries of political entities and those can be quite irregular, the application of a hard compactness measure tends to be problematic.  Nevertheless, a lack of compactness is considered a strong indication that a district has been gerrymandered.  The map below shows Pennsylvania Congressional District 7 as it was defined for the 2011 – 2020 decade.

This is the opposite of compact and clearly appears to be a gross gerrymander job.  It was so ridiculous that it was described as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”  This may be an extreme example, but it actually has plenty of serious competition all around these United States.  Clearly, the rules have not prevented gerrymandering.

If one of your takeaways from Lesson 1 is that the proper drawing of electoral districts is a slippery and messy problem, you would be correct.  It gets worse.