Public Policy

public_policyGerrymandering, Part 1:

A Powerful Political Tool

Gerrymandering is a potent political tool commonly used by the Republican and Democratic Parties alike to create partisan advantage in the election process. With the 2018 elections fast approaching, it is important to understand the roles of voter suppression and gerrymandering in influencing the outcome of local, state and national elections. To begin the discussion I’ll focus on the general background and consequences of gerrymandering by describing the history, the meaning, the implementation, and problems for democracy.

Gerrymandering has been in practice since 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced like Gary) of Massachusetts’s administration enacted a law redefining the state’s new senatorial districts in such a manner as to favor disproportionately the Democratic-Republicans over the Federalists. The contours of one of the districts resembled a salamander, famously depicted in a Boston Gazette cartoon that inspired the new term Gerry-mander, now written “gerrymander” and pronounced with a soft “g” like “jerry.” The two main strategies used are “cracking,” diluting the voting power of a party within a district, and “packing,” concentrating a group to reduce its voting power. Click here for is a very good Washington Post article that explains in detail the mechanics of gerrymandering.

In recent years the art and accuracy of manipulating district boundaries has been enhanced by computer-generated data from the census and election returns which can precisely detail the political and ethnic composition of congressional districts. After each ten-year census, the Congressional districts must be redrawn (reapportioned) when a state gains or loses districts. The federal government stipulates that districts must have nearly equal populations and must not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity. In most states, the state legislature has primary control of the redistricting process, both for state legislative districts and for congressional districts. Thirty-seven state legislatures control their own district lines, and 42 legislatures have control over their congressional lines (seven states have only one Representative). (Loyola Law School website). Other methods include various types of boards or commissions such as an advisory commission, a backup commission, when no plan has successfully passed, a politician commission, and an independent commission, which limits the direct participation by elected or public officials.

In Texas, the State Legislature draws up the redistricting plan for both congressional and state legislative district boundaries. If the legislature fails to approve a plan, state law requires that a Backup Commission, the LRB, (Legislative Redistricting Board), comprised of state-wide officials, the Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, Attorney General, State Comptroller, and Commissioner of the General Land Office, draw the lines of the districts.

If you have been wondering why Congress is unresponsive to the voices of constituents, gerrymandering can provide some of the answers. According to the Washington Post, only 10% to 15% of the voting public approve of the job that Congress is doing; yet the very same politicians keep getting re-elected. Recent statistics from the 2016 elections discussed in a Washington Post article by Brian Klass (February 10, 2017) demonstrate the lack of incentive to listen to voters. The analysis of the election results for 2016 revealed the following:

“Only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

In the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1%; the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70% of the vote, while their challenger won just 30%.

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than 9 out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast.”

The disturbing conclusion is that in 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states.

Klass further adds that “this is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition [and compromise].”

When congressional districts are non-competitive, there is little incentive for legislators to compromise, collaborate or seek creative solutions to important issues. Instead, the public faces government gridlock, congressional bickering, increased polarization and hardening of political viewpoints, and my-way-or-the-highway attitudes. Often distorted voter patterns within a district lead to voter apathy because voters feel that their vote doesn’t count. Most citizens would like to see government functioning properly and taking positive action on legislation in the public’s best interest.

Next month I will present “Gerrymandering, Part 2: What’s Happening in Texas-A Closer Look.” Please contact Martha Ewell at m.ewell@sbcglobal.net if you have any comments or suggestions about this or future articles.

Martha Ewell, Public Policy Chair