Gerrymandering Is Hurting American Voters

Adam Light, 14

Every ten years, the United States government conducts a census. With this information about how many people live in the U.S. and where they live, they determine how many House of Representatives members, and thus congressional districts, each state receives. From there, it’s up to the majority party in a state’s legislature to decide how to carve up each of those districts. Some states assign a third party to make a fair map, but most leave it to their legislature to design these districts. What has developed over time, especially in recent years, is “gerrymandering”—the process of designing such maps to benefit one's own political party. The controversial process has drawn enough attention of late that outgoing President Obama has decided to focus some of his post-presidency time on ending it. And the Supreme Court recently agreed to take up the matter in Gill v. Whitford. The Justices will look at whether Wisconsin state assembly maps were unreasonably gerrymandered for political gain to the point of being unconstitutional, and their ruling will have implications for gerrymandering across the U.S.

The word gerrymandering dates back to 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts approved a bill that designed the Massachusetts state senate district map to benefit his own Democratic-Republican Party (yes, that was once the name of a major party). One of the districts was shaped somewhat like a salamander, and thus it was dubbed the “Gerry-mander.”

Since then, precise data and sophisticated computer software have enabled legislators to warp districts so precisely that they’re able to include certain people’s houses in a district while excluding someone next door. They’re not just shaped like salamanders anymore—Maryland’s 3rd congressional district has been likened to a "broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."

Is partisan gerrymandering legal? It’s not entirely clear. The reason is that the Constitution says only that districts must be drawn but doesn’t give any instructions about how they should be drawn, and court rulings trying to settle the matter have been inconclusive. But the Supreme Court case, which is set for the 2017-18 term, may settle the matter for good.

There is one type of gerrymandering, however, that is clearly illegal: If the gerrymander is ruled to be on racial grounds, it violates the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which ensures racial minorities get their say in Congress.      

The main reason gerrymandering is so appalling is not that it’s used for partisan bias, though that’s certainly not good. The real problem is that the House of Representatives was created to fairly represent the people, proportionally. But we’ve reached a point where nearly every House seat will remain in the same party’s hands year after year regardless of the candidates—meaning voters don’t have a choice any more. To borrow a line from a documentary about this very topic by comedian Zach Galifianakis, “I wish we could go back to the time when voters chose their legislators, instead of the legislators choosing their voters.”

Places like Canada do it right—leaving redistricting to third parties, and basing maps on geographic boundaries and normal-looking shapes, not pterodactyls and salamanders. Indeed, some states, like Iowa, California, and Washington, have established strict rules on redistricting and made the process more fair, and they get much more representative results.

The data we use to draw districts is acquired by the Census every ten years. Interestingly, U.S. Census Director John Thompson recently resigned due to a funding crisis. President Donald Trump will be able to appoint the replacement, and some worry that Trump may nominate someone friendly to Republicans. Because while Census Directors may seem relatively powerless, they can make some important decisions, like, for example, how frequently to send out forms. While we can hope our president will appoint someone honest, it makes sense to be worried for the future of our districts.

In addition to the Galifianakis movie, this issue has seen a lot of other attention recently, especially as House Republicans continue to earn majorities based on unfair maps. But Democrats have been guilty of the same thing, helping them control the House for four decades straight in the 20th century. Indeed, last October, President Obama announced that he and former Attorney General Eric Holder will chair a group that will fight for redistricting reform.

While this group's founders are Democrats, they claim their ideal is to create fair, unbiased maps and to reform the process so that voters can truly have their say. If this organization becomes powerful, it could mean quite a lot in terms of reform, and would be a very helpful step in assuring voters can choose the best Representative, based on what they themselves want. And depending on how the Supreme Court rules on the gerrymandering case, major progress on this issue might happen in the very near future.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain, copyright Boston Gazette dd. March 26, 1812. / Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835)