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The Death of the Gerrymander?

Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010
    For the last decade, everyone in politics knew that 2010 would be a critical election year. And it had nothing to do with the economy, control of Congress or President Barack Obama’s agenda.
    It was all about redistricting — the once-a-decade chance to redraw legislative lines in federal, state and local elections. Lawmakers know that this is a power not to be missed. Done right, it can create safe Democratic or Republican districts, even if those districts have to be twisted into bizarre shapes.
    The Republicans’ sweeping success this election at the state level means that they will hold the reins on this process in many states, greatly increasing their chances of keeping some of their newly gained seats.
    But 2010 could very well be the year that broke the “gerrymander.”
    Though it has been around since the practically the beginning of the Republic — the pejorative term “gerrymander” is a reference to Elbridge Gerry, James Madison’s second vice president, who created a bizarrely shaped district that looked somewhat like a salamander to benefit his party — gerrymandering has only taken on a new life in the last half century, thanks to a series of developments.
    First was the Supreme Court rulings of Baker v. Carr in 1962 and the 1964 Reynolds v. Sims, which enshrined the “one person, one vote” standard. Prior to those rulings, there were greatly unbalanced districts at all levels of government. In one notorious case in Vermont, the population differential in two state legislative districts was 1,480 to 1. Now election districts — in Congress, the state legislature and local government — must be roughly the same population size.
    Second was the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which created a requirement for “majority-minority” districts throughout the South. The Republican Party in the Southern states eventually took advantage of this to create districts packed with minority voters, most of whom voted Democrat, leaving white Southern Democrats without a base of support.
    Third was the famed California 1982 redistricting, led by California Congressman Phil Burton, which enshrined gerrymandering as a political tool. The Burton redistricting took a congressional delegation in which the Democrats had a 22-21 advantage and turned it into a 27-18 Democratic majority (the state also added two seats through reapportionment).
    Fourth was technology. When Burton performed his redistricting magic, he used a map and a slide ruler. Now it’s a science, easily available to anyone with Internet access; there’s even a redistricting game online. Anyone can create a new map that would heavily improve their party’s chances of success.
    Yet this increased use of gerrymandering to influence national politics may be its downfall.
    In the past, redistricting was never an exciting focus of politics — its boring nature was turned into a joke on “The Simpsons.” Instead, it operated as a tool where legislators could increase their chances of re-election, as well as reward friends and punish enemies.
    Once it is out in the open, voters don’t like it — much as they don’t like other attempts to game the political system and violate a sense of fair play. And unlike other political process reforms, such as campaign finance, there’s an easy nonpartisan solution to redistricting.
    The solution is adopting nonpartisan redistricting commission. Twelve states have already taken this route. On Election Day in the ultimate trendsetter state, California voters used the initiative to expand their redistricting commission to include congressional seats and shot down a separate attempt to defeat redistricting.
Florida, the largest swing state, adopted restrictive new rules for redistricting, with more than 60 percent of voters approving the amendments. These developments may be the start of a new trend.
    Redistricting has a long and frequently sordid history in this country. But until now, it has been one that only political junkies cared about.
    With both parties making it a core issue in the last election, voters may get a chance to see the process in a new light. And as we saw in California and Florida, chances are they won’t like it.
    The gerrymander has been a survivor, but it may not be able to withstand the light of day.
    Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.

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