What is it?
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundary of an electoral district strategically so that it benefits one political party over another. Gerrymandering was coined after Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812 when he put a law into place that allowed for the re-defining of state senatorial districts. This re-drawing of senatorial district lines resulted in the favoring of Democratic-Republicans over the Federalist Party, as the Federalist Party vote appeared smaller due to the consolidation of the party as a result of the new lines.
Since then, gerrymandering has become a common practice, enabling electoral lines to be re-drawn to the benefit of those in power. This is a problem because it often causes disproportionate representation of voters, either causing minority voters to not be reflected because the lines are drawn so that there is such a small population of minority voters in each district that these votes are not reflected, or on the other hand, the lines are drawn intentionally so that the minority appears as the majority, by drawing districts so unrealistically that it makes it seem like there is more of the minority than there are. Both of these manipulations of representation are made possible through gerrymandering.
Who does it benefit?
Gerrymandering benefits the parties who make use of it by redrawing district lines to their advantage. A study from the University of Michigan found that there was a 9.1 percent increase in republican support in the House of Representatives in the last twenty years as a result of electoral lines being redrawn. However, the study found that in Democratic-leaning states, gerrymandering resulted in an 8.9 percent decrease in Republican representation in the House of Representatives; this number was even larger in some other states.
Gerrymandering also benefits politicians who no longer have to become more moderate in order to win votes. This happens because lines are conveniently drawn in a way that these politicians can still attain votes, whilst remaining hardlined on various issues.
Who does it hurt?
Currently, gerrymandering hurts all Americans. Gerrymandering is a result of extreme partisanship, and it causes polarization to grow. Polarization is one of the most destructive aspects of our democracy currently, and gerrymandering does not cause polarization, but it does worsen its effects. It does so by causing politicians to take on more extreme perspectives to appeal to the extremists in their district, furthering the political divide among candidates, rather than maintaining more moderate views that could produce positive cooperation between parties.
Gerrymandering also currently disproportionately affects minorities. Racial gerrymandering has been the cause of African Americans having little to no voice when it comes to their voice being heard, especially in the past. African Americans, less now due to improved voting laws in regards to race, but even still have notoriously been spread throughout electoral districts to the point that their vote becomes diluted. This is a problem for all minority groups, as a result of gerrymandering. Racial groups have been drawn around and through so specifically that they are either compacted to the point of having only little representation, or there are so few of them per district that they get no representation at all.
How do we stop it?
There have been numerous laws put in place to stop the effects of gerrymandering, but there is still work that needs to be done.
The Voting Rights Act was put into place in 1965. This law functions as a protection for minority communities, so that minorities are neither too highly concentrated to the point that their votes are wasted, nor are they too dispersed throughout the voting field that their votes become diluted. Following this, the court also put into place a law requiring states to have majority-minority districts, so that minorities would be concentrated enough that they could elect their candidate of choice.
A primary issue when it comes to the practice of gerrymandering, and preventing it is the issue of information. Many people are not educated on the practice of gerrymandering. They may have heard the buzzword before, and if you explained it to them, they would most likely be against it, but there is little exposure to the evils of it. As a result of this, one primary way of preventing it, is educating the public about it.
One initiative that showed success in stirring up curiosity about gerrymandering was a Redistricting Game created by political scientists. This game was created to help the public understand the effects, and get them passionate about the issue.
Another idea that gained a lot of support was the California Proposition 11. It worked to change the balance of power by putting districting in the hands of citizens, making them the accountability organism instead of them having to rely solely on the government for accountability in designing voting districts. This would be possible through the selection of a 14-person legislative redistricting commission who would have the authority to redraw Assembly, Senate, and Board of Equalization district boundaries. Any citizen of California who meets the qualifications and doesn’t have any conflicts of interest, are able to apply for a position on the commission.