Find me at @edub910 on Twitter
Imagine a world where, rather than politicians being selected by voters that the voters get selected by the politicians. Well, you wouldn’t need much of an imagination because this is exactly what’s happening in America today. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to gerrymandering. The United States is one of two democracies in the world that gives its politicians an active role in drawing up voting districts with a ‘winner-takes-all’ voting system – and the result is disastrous. It’s exactly what it sounds like, districts are manipulated to maximize the benefit of a specific political party thus creating brash representatives with no fear of losing an election. The last time that Congress had an approval rating higher than its disapproval rating was way back in January 2004 – over thirteen years ago. Not only that but its approval rating has even slipped down in to single digits while yielding no real improvements through the election process, and this is no coincidence. Meanwhile, since the country’s inception this method has continued to be used at the expense of the American people and now it’s up to us to make a change.
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”
The very first case of gerrymandering in America occurred in 1788 (even before all the states had ratified the Constitution) by none other than the man responsible for the above quote, Patrick Henry. He intentionally created a skewed voting district of whom he anticipated would include a majority of anti-federalist voters in order to snub our future president, James Madison. Though his effort failed, the idea that ensued has played a vital role in the political tides throughout American history. So where did the term “gerrymandering” originate? Elbridge Gerry, former Massachusetts governor and vice president to James Madison. See the photo above? That is a caricature of the egregiously drawn voting district that made gerrrymandering famous. The term is actually supposed to be his last name mashed together with ‘salamander’, which as you can see from the photo, was used to describe the shape of the district that coined the term.
There are two main methods used to gerrymander voting districts, the first of which is “packing“. This is when you purposely pack together as many voters from the opposing party as possible in an effort to minimize the amount of seats they can win in an election. A perfect example of this is the state senate district where I reside here in Fayetteville, North Carolina – senate district 21:
As you can see the district purposely reaches out in to Cumberland County and grabs up some of its biggest African-American voting precincts. This story goes a bit deeper than the map above suggests though. I’m sure most of you have heard of Zach Galifianakis, the actor made famous from the movie “The Hangover” (yes – Alan with the beard). As a North Carolina native he helped film a documentary about the detrimental impact gerrymandering has on the state and featured this very district along with former state senator Margaret Dickson (watch the clip in this link). As you see they intentionally took her out of senate 19 and redistricted her home address in to senate 21 removing her ability to represent what was once her district. Aside from her, they also took four Democrats from the United States House of Representatives and fused them down into two districts creating the same effect. How is this legal?
The second technique is “cracking“. This is when people from the same area (who tend to vote similar) are purposely divided up into different districts to dilute their voting power. This is usually done when a district can no longer be packed so they take the remaining constituency and split them apart.
The Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the most monumental achievements of the civil rights movement. It guaranteed fair government representation for minorities, and that racial discrimination couldn’t be used when it came time to hit the polls. The bill assured that the rights from the fourteenth (due process) and fifteenth (the right to vote) amendments extend to racial minorities while also enacting many provisions to protect them from other circumstantial situations.
To no surprise, gerrymandering was used as a means of vote suppression, and for the most part it was the “cracking” method at first. Picture this – you have a black neighborhood surrounded by four white neighborhoods. Rather than group the black neighborhood together as a district (giving them representation), the legislature decides to split the black neighborhood in four parts and put a different piece in each of the surrounding four white neighborhoods. What’s that mean? The black voters don’t have enough votes to carry any district, thus their vote is suppressed from being diluted through redistricting.
This brings us to what changed the game as far as redistricting goes – Thornburg v. Gingles. This created what is known as “majority-minority districts” which is defined as:
A majority-minority district is an electoral district, such as a United States congressional district, in which the majority of the constituents in the district are racial or ethnic minorities (as opposed to white non-Hispanics).
What this did was take away the ability to “crack” minority communities and provide them with government representatives that truly act as a reflection of them. However this led to consequences rather early. While Congress steadily (and still continues to) became more racially and ethnically diverse the Democrats started losing congressional seats. Though there are plenty of state legislature examples one could look at, we will go with Newt Gingrich and his “Republican Revolution” in 1994. The Republicans won both chambers of Congress for the first time in over 40 years, but as you see from this New York Times article dated just a few days after the ’94 election, grouping large portions of minorities together pulled Democrat votes from swing districts and handed them over to the Republican party. This is the idea that ‘mainstreamed’ the “packing” concept. The more like-minded voters you group in a single district, the less effect they will have in places that would otherwise have been competitive. To put it simply – yes, they discovered a way to use this historic legislation against the people it was meant to protect. This is why North Carolina’s districts were ruled unconstitutional in a federal court.
So How Has It Affected Us?
Though gerrymandering is a technique which has been around for centuries, the 2010 election cycle took things to an entirely new level with the Republican-led “REDMAP” initiative. This was a two part plan with the ultimate goal set as obtaining the ability to draw up the new congressional districts after the 2010 census and give themselves a clear advantage heading forward. In order to do that though, they needed to take back some of the state legislatures that were, at that time, in the hands of Democrats. Karl Rove actually warned the Democrats prior to the election but they failed to take it serious. The first step of REDMAP was dumping $30 million into what would normally be docile districts that were generally uncontested or unsuspecting, flooding them with attack ads among other things. So did it work? Absolutely. They flipped 10 of the 15 states they targeted.
The above photo is the dramatic change to U.S. House of Representatives that was ushered in after the implementation of REDMAP. How bad is it? Lets view the numbers. Just through state legislatures the Republicans have gained almost 700 seats (more than Democrats did after the Watergate Scandal!). This plan gave the right wing vast control of state legislatures across the country. On the national level the results mimic those of the states. In its first election in 2012, REDMAP paid off tremendously for the GOP. Even though Democrats received 1.4 million more total votes for the House than Republicans, the GOP still grabbed a 33 seat advantage. North Carolina has thirteen districts and Democrats scooped up a 51%-49% advantage overall which would mean seven Democrat seats and six Republican, right? Wrong. Despite the numbers the Dems only took four of the thirteen seats.
David Daley’s book explaining the effects of REDMAP and gerrymandering
It has happened all over the country – in Pennsylvania the Democrats won 51% of the total vote yet only won five of eighteen congressional seats. In Wisconsin Democrats received a majority of votes yet only won 39 out of 99 state legislative seats. In Michigan Democrats held a majority yet only hold 47 of 110 state seats. In Virginia the Democrats had a 4% advantage yet were held to just three of eleven congressional seats. This problem is bipartisan, even though so far I have primarily talked about the affect gerrymandering has had on Democrats. According to Harvard Political Review, redistricting heavily favored the left from the 60’s to the 90’s – it’s just this current level of gerrymandering has never been seen before. The Democratic state of Illinois is notorious for using similar gerrymandering techniques, and so is Maryland. Since the Constitution only says how to pick representatives, the fine print on the procedural end is generally left to interpretation.
REDMAP was such a success, in fact, that Democrats have planned out their own initiative for the next census titled “Advantage 2020”. The problem? Well for starters the right will see it coming from a mile away. Also, it will be much more difficult to take back districts already set against them in a way that was done with such precision. However some feel as though this gerrymandered atmosphere created by Republicans is responsible for the current grassroots campaigns on the left and may end up helping Democrats in the long run. Another issue that’s created – you have two parties who don’t fear the loss of elections which creates an enormous tank of fuel to add to the partisanship in Washington. The reason is simply because politicians will be more focused on playing to their bases to win primaries rather than losing in the general election where there isn’t any real competition. Just look at our most recent election as an example. Congress holds an average approval of around 10%-15% yet out of 435 congressional districts *drumroll* only eight districts actually saw an incumbent lose.
So How Do We Fix This?
There are many solutions that have been proposed to end gerrymandering, above is one of them – computer generated compact districts that are based solely off population. This way ensures that your party, race, wealth, along with practically every other ‘class’ label become irrelevant. We all know how bad NC is gerrymandered, look at the difference:
Now on the flip side let’s give Maryland a look:
We also have what is known as the “fair vote” which I find very interesting. Not only that, it isn’t as complicated as it can initially seem to be. It basically takes the existing congressional seats and merges them into larger districts – meaning a district has multiple seats. Why would a district need to have more than a single seat? Because governing power would be split within the district between the winner and the loser(s). Meaning if a district has 8 seats, and a candidate wins 55% of the vote they get to hold 5 seats of those 8 seats, with the ‘losing’ representative acquiring the remaining ones. The goal here is to give every voter representation, even if their party loses. CLICK HERE for a video that explains this in more detail.
Another idea I saw suggested is called the “double proxy” system. Now this one is kind of complicated. But using the example that the source above gave:
In this system, every Congressional district gets two members instead of just one. Each political party fields one candidate per district, and the top two vote-receiving candidates are elected to Congress. Typically, that would be one Democrat and one Republican. However, and this is key, the members are not equal. Each elected member carries to Congress the proxies of those who voted for him/her, and it is those proxies that he/she casts when voting. If member A is elected with 300,000 votes, and member B is elected with 200,000, then whenever a bill comes up for a vote, member A will be casting his/her 300,000 proxies, and member B will be casting his/her 200,000 proxies. To pass a bill, you would need a majority of the proxies.
One of my favorites however is “ranked choice voting”. Being that I’m from North Carolina I’m a major college basketball fan so maybe this is why I find it so appealing. This would be like voting for your politician the same way that the AP votes on college rankings every week. You rank your favorite to your least favorite, and the “number one” candidate just depends on how the numbers tally up. Not only that, but the cities that have attempted this have yielded positive results.
And while all these are all new and innovative ideas, we could make this extremely simple just by looking at Iowa. Their state legislature stopped handling redistricting in 1981, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. They created an independent and non-partisan organization that ensures the redistricting process is a fair one. While their main focus is population equality, when necessary they do take into account certain boundaries like county and city lines. They even have a provision stating that districts have to be geometrically sound and can’t be irregularly shaped.
With all these possible alternatives it is crazy to not create a better system to take the power of voting from the politicians and return it to the people. Grassroots campaigns have sprouted up across the nation addressing numerous issues (including this one) and we have to continue to mobilize so we can produce results off this momentum. Get active. Get involved. It is up to us to make a difference for the future.
Wednesday March 1st in Raleigh, North Carolina we are having the “Citizen’s Lobby Day to End Gerrymandering” at the NC General Assembly Legislative building. #FairMapsDay will hopefully begin the movement to put an end to this once and for all. If you’re interested in attending you can click HERE for a video explanation. RSVP HERE or HERE on Facebook, and for any further questions contact Common Cause NC. For my fellow North Carolinians here are some stats Common Cause has provided regarding our current electoral process:
Redistricting in North Carolina
30% – Percent of 2016 state legislative seats where candidate had no primary or general
40% – Percent of 2016 state legislative seats with no opposition in the general election
0 – # of competitive congressional races in North Carolina in 2016
91% – Percent of 2016 state legislative races decided by more than 10 percentage points
30+ – # of court interventions in North Carolina redistricting cases since 1980
63 – Number of NC House members (out of 120) cosponsoring bipartisan reform bill to take
partisan politics out of the process and remove map-drawing power from politicians in 2015
Once – NC House passed reform bill in 2011 with bipartisan vote 88-27; including support of NC
House Speaker Tim Moore and U.S. Senator (and then-House Speaker) Thom Tillis. NC Senate
5 – # of times Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sponsored reform bills while in the minority
4 – # of times House Speaker Tim Moore sponsored reform bills while in the minority party
0 – Number of redistricting lawsuits in Iowa since that state adopted redistricting reform
“I think the gerrymandered districts where we have no competition in the general election,
makes all of our jobs difficult.”
Former Gov. Pat McCrory (R)
“I will work to expand voter opportunities and create a non-partisan Redistricting Commission
to make voting districts fair and competitive.”
Gov. Roy Cooper (D)
Together we can and will make a change! I hope to see you there!