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Podcast Transcript

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Churchill was on to something. While I’m sure the vast majority of people listening to this would support the idea of democracy in theory, how a democracy is implemented can be tricky. 

Change the rules, and you can totally change the outcome, even if the voters vote exactly the same. This is especially true with geographical representation. 

Learn more about gerrymandering, its history, how it works, and measures to get rid of it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

Unless you happen to have a very small group of people, direct democracy where everyone can vote on everything is very difficult and hard to manage. 

To solve this problem, representative democracy was created. Instead of everyone voting on everything, you vote for people to vote on your behalf. 

In most places, representatives are elected on the basis of geography. People who live in one place for one representative, and people from another place vote for another. 

While that sounds straightforward, the problem comes when we try to define what a “place” is. 

The story of gerrymandering, but not the practice, begins in 1812 in the state of Massachusetts. 

The governor at the time was Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was one of the founding fathers of the United States, albeit one of the lesser-known ones. 

He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he attended the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign the document because it lacked a Bill of Rights. The next year, he would go on to become the fifth vice president of the United States under James Madison, although he died in office after 21 months. 

Gerry was a staunch anti-federalist and a member of the Democratic-Republican party. 

While he was governor of Massachusetts, the Democratic-Republicans made an attempt to try completely shut out the Federalists from the Massachusetts State Senate. 

A plan was contrived that would redraw the legislative districts such that the Democratic-Republicans would win control of the Senate. In order to do this, they had to draw the lines of several districts in such a way that they looked extremely……odd. Prior to this, district boundaries followed the boundary lines of counties.

The redistricting plan wasn’t Gerry’s idea, but he did approve the idea as governor. 

On March 26, 1812, the Boston Gazette, a Federalist newspaper, published an editorial cartoon showing the shape of the election district of South Essex, which curved along the western and northern parts of Boston. The cartoon compared the oddly shaped district to a winged monster. 

They dubbed the monster a Gerrymander, which is a portmanteau of Gerry and salamander. The original term was pronounced Gerrymander, as it was named after Elbridge Gerry. 

The term caught on quickly as other Federalist newspapers published it. Before the month was out, the term was used in newspapers outside of Boston. In April, it was being used outside of Massachuttes, and in May, it was being published outside of New England. 

By October, the term had been adopted to describe oddly shaped districts in other states. By the end of 1812, the term had been used in 80 different American newspapers. 

By 1820, the word was in common use, and in 1864, it was added to Webster’s Dictionary. The only reason it wasn’t in the dictionary sooner, it has been said, is because the family of Noah Webster, who produced the dictionary, was friends with the widow of Elbridge Gerry, who outlived her husband by 35  years.

The actual Massachusetts gerrymander was effective. Gerry lost the next election for governor, but the Democratic-Republicans retained the Massachusetts State Senate. 

Needless to say, over time, the pronunciation of Garry-mander evolved into Jerry-mander.

The Massachusetts redistricting of 1812 is where the name came from, but it was hardly the first instance of gerrymandering. 

There were cases of gerrymandering that predated the first US Congress. Supposedly, in 1788, Patrick Henry and other anti-federalists in the Virginia House of Delegates drew the lines for Virginia’s 5th congressional district in an attempt to keep James Madison out of Congress. 

He failed. 

After the Civil War, gerrymandering was used to create districts in the South that would ensure that black voters would have their votes diluted. 

The Republicans, after the war, used gerrymandering in the creation of states to increase their power. The existence of two different Dakota states was basically due to a form of gerrymandering. 

So, how exactly does gerrymandering work? Why does redrawing district lines affect the outcome of elections?

Let’s demonstrate how it works with a hypothetical example. Let’s assume there is a region with a population of one million voters who have four representatives in some legislature. 

Let us also assume that the entire population of eligible voters is evenly split between two political parties, the gold and silver parties. 500,000 members of the Gold Party and 500,000 members of the Silver Party.

Of the four representatives from the region who will be elected, how many will be from each party?

You might say that each political party would get two representatives each. This certainly would make sense, but this is by no means certain. 

Let’s say the Gold party is in charge of redistricting one year. They get to set the boundaries of the four representative districts. 

In order to benefit themselves, they create a district that has a population that is overwhelmingly made up of members of the Silver Party. Each district will have 250,000 people, and in this district, they draw the lines to include 225,000 Silver Party voters and 25,000 Gold Party voters. 

That means almost half of the members of the Silver Party will be lumped together in a single district that they will win overwhelmingly. 

The remaining 275,000 Silver Party members will be distributed between the three remaining districts, where they will have approximately 91,000 members in each district. The Gold Party will have approximately 150,000 voters in each of the three districts.

So, by just drawing the lines differently, the balance between the parties went from two each to three to one. 

Depending on the number and distribution of voters and the number of districts, it is possible to define districts such that a minority of voters hold a majority of the seats. 

In larger districts with larger populations, it is possible to get extremely varied results depending on how you draw the district lines. 

Before I go any further, I should note that while the phenomenon of gerrymandering was coined in the United States, it is hardly an American phenomenon.  Anywhere you have geographical districts is subject to gerrymandering. 

There are cases of gerrymandering that can be found on every continent other than Antarctica. Sometimes, they have occurred infrequently, and in other cases, they have been common occurrences. 

Gerrymandering used to happen frequently in Canada until each province established independent electoral boundary commissions. 

Nonetheless, for reasons you’ll see in a bit, it is something that has had a unique history in the United States. 

Throughout the 20th century, both parties were guilty of gerrymandering. Democrats and Republicans alike used the power of creating electoral boundaries to their benefit. 

However, there was a limit to how much they could do. This was due to the fact that election districts were changed infrequently, and everything had to be calculated by hand. 

The US Supreme Court decision that changed gerrymandering, although no one knew it at the time, was the 1964 case of Wesberry v. Sanders. The court ruled 6 to 3, finding that congressional districts must have nearly equal populations to ensure that “as nearly as is practicable, one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.”

Having each district be similar in population seems quite reasonable at first glance. However, what it meant is that after every census was taken, once every ten years, districts would have to be redrawn to reflect changes in population.

Now, all of a sudden, there was a gerrymandering opportunity that would appear like clockwork every decade. Whoever controlled the body that made the districts after the census would have enormous power. 

There was another thing that helped to create more gerrymandered districts: computers. 

By putting data into a computer, it was possible to create far more elaborate districts that defied all geographic sense. There were literally gerrymandered districts that would go down a road without including the houses on either side of the road. 

Most people can look at the outline of a gerrymandered district and see immediately that something doesn’t look right. Humans do not group together in such odd shapes. 

Moreover, the idea of gerrymandering strikes most people as unfair, as it is the elected officials choosing their voters, not voters choosing their elected officials. 

This has been brought to the attention of the US Supreme Court on several occasions. In 1946, the case of Colegrove v. Green came before the court by three voters in Illinois who claimed that the districts at the time “lacked compactness of territory and approximate equality of population.”

The court upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case because there was nothing in the constitution about the compactness of districts. 

For the most part, the courts have declared the electoral boundaries are political and legislative decisions and not under the purview of the courts.

So, assuming you don’t want to have gerrymandered districts, how can you get rid of them? 

One option that has been tried is bipartisan electoral boundary commissions. These tend not to work because there is an incentive for each party to create districts that are safe for incumbents. This is a big reason reasons why the rate of incumbency is so high in the US House of Reprresentatives. 

Another solution is to have an independent commission create the boundaries. Iowa had done this. The Iowa Commission is tasked with creating congressional districts that have balanced populations, are compact, and follow the boundaries of existing counties. 

The idea of compact districts is an appealing one because it eliminated the lengthy, strung-out monstrosities that were responsible for the name gerrymander to begin with. 

However, there is a problem. Actually, a really big problem. It turns out you don’t don’t need to create ridiculous-looking districts to gerrymander effectively. It can be done using districts that are reasonably shaped such that most people wouldn’t raise an eye. 

In the process of researching this video, I came across one computer programmer who developed a program using a Markov Chain Monte Carlo Simulated Anneal. That’s a mouthful, but suffice it to say, using census data and precinct voting data for the state of North Carolina, he was able to create not just a map but multiple maps that all appeared to have compact legislative zones. 

None of the districts ‘looked’ like a gerrymander. However, he was able to get maps that could get results as lopsided as 11-2 or as flipped as 5-8. They were the exact same voters but with dramatically different results. 

So, the demand for compact districts isn’t really a solution to gerrymandering so long as there is enough computing power available. You can have compact districts of approximately equal size that are still drawn to favor one party over another. 

So, the popular solution to gerrymandering might not be a solution at all. 

So long as representative democracies use geographical districts for elections, where to draw the boundaries is going to be a problem. So long as the creation of those boundaries is a political process, there is a good chance that you will wind up with gerrymanders.