Democracy is never a fixed state of affairs. It's always in motion, changing and adapting -- hopefully -- to the will of the people.
That's why every 10 years, states redraw their local and congressional districts to -- hopefully -- better represent the electorate and ensure an equally populated distribution of representative seats. The idea is that as the electorate changes, ages, and moves, Congressional districts should change to keep up. Nothing too controversial, right?
That's, unfortunately, where gerrymandering comes in.
Instead of redistricting based on population trends or the will of the voters, major political parties will instead design purposely bizarre-looking districts in order to squeeze as much partisan advantage as possible. When they do so, it's called gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering was named after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who oversaw a complete redistricting of Massachusetts in the early 1810s in order to keep his party firmly in power. Apparently, newspapers thought his bizarre new districts resembled "salamanders," so the term "Gerrymandering" was born - a cute, innocent-sounding name for a sinister, unethical practice.
Don't be fooled.
Here's what we're talking about in practice:
Depending on the specific makeup of the district, those who won a minority share of votes could possibly control the majority of districts. In the sample above, blue should retain about 60% of the vote and red 40% of the vote.
But with the trick of gerrymandering, it's possible to force the majority of the blue votes into two ultra-blue districts, thus giving red the "majority" in the remaining 3 districts, even though blue won over 50% more votes than red overall.
Imagine running for student body president in high school, and you garner 60 out of the 100 votes cast, and yet your challenger, who only garnered 40 votes, is declared the winner. Now take that kind of system and apply it to almost every single Congressional district we currently have.
This... seems crazy illegal right? Rigging district lines in order to ensure that your personal political party retains power no matter what the actual vote count is... actually pretty evil when you stop to really think about it.
Gerrymandering is completely anti-democratic, as it incentivizes each side - majority or minority - to carve out ultra-specific district designs in order to squeeze as much of the opposing side into as few districts as possible.
So the next time you see a completely bizarre and disturbing Congressional district shape, that's almost certainly the work of gerrymandering:
No normal human communities of any size ever take on shapes that look like this. All of those unpleasant and bizarre jagged edges, long thin lines, and scattershot shapes are specifically designed to cram as much opposition voters into a single district as possible - thus leaving every other district available for the other side to rack up deliberately-biased victories.
Under gerrymandering, politicians in office are essentially giving themselves the privilege of being able to choose their voters, instead of the voters choosing the candidate. Its sole purpose is to entrench the established power of whichever party is currently in power.
Let’s go through a few examples:
This is a real, actual Congressional district - Maryland’s 3rd. Would any sane person look at this shape and think “Ah yes, this represents a distinct and cohesive community of citizens”? It looks more like a grouping of rivers than any sort of natural human settlement. Embarrassing.
Totally normal shape! No corrupt voter-suppressing shenanigans going on here, right?
Some gerrymanders are so egregious they’ve gotten their own nickname. Ohio’s 4th district, for example is known locally as “the duck”:
It would be funny if it was so dangerously destructive to our nation’s democratic health. Even those in power know that the districts they are designing are ridiculous and corrupt.
“The duck.” Give us a break.
Sadly, despite several State Supreme Court decisions finding that legislatures in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin were illegally gerrymandering their districts to rig elections, the practice is more widespread today than ever. In fact, the North Carolina Supreme Court actually overturned *their own* anti-gerrymandering decision this year, thus paving the way for even more rampant voter abuse to occur.
Gerrymandering is one of the most blatant, corrupt and annoyingly-named anti-democratic practices our current two-party system employs to keep itself in power at all costs. The next time you see an outrageously designed Congressional district that looks more like a weird glitch than any sort of natural group, your blood should boil.
When gerrymandering is allowed to run rampant, politicians no longer need to deliver on their promises or even represent their constituency to get re-elected -- they can simply warp the physical shape of the district in order to capture a small majority to remain in power.
Gerrymandering underscores a key benefit to independent and third-party candidates: because they exist out of the standard two-party dichotomy, they have no incentive to redraw district lines - and in fact, they have little institutional ability to do so.
In fact, states that have employed independent, non-partisan redistricting commissions (ie, not elected politicians or any political party operatives) end up having the fairest and most equitably-balanced representation in the country.
Going up against the beast of gerrymandering is no small task, but there's a lot we can be doing to pressure elected officials to draw fairly balanced maps:
Advocate for redistricting reform
If you live in a state that implements citizen-led ballot initiatives, like Colorado, California, and Michigan, introduce or vote on ballot propositions that support independent commissions over partisan district control.
Attend public hearings
If your elected leaders, whether local, state or federal, never hear any complaints about gerrymandering, they simply won't touch the issue. Let them know you know how fucked up this whole thing is.
Organize your community
In 24 states, protocols exist to keep communities of interest in a single district. Vouching publicly for why your community should be kept intact during the redistricting process is critical to retain a fair balance of district lines.
Gerrymandering is a thorny, complex, and deeply-entrenched stain on the face of our democracy. The only way we can move past this blatantly anti-democratic framework is to take action at the grassroots level and build from there.
If you're tired of politicians rigging elections and taking away your voting power, volunteer with Good Party. We're helping elect independent candidates to end this partisan theater and restore fairness to the political system.