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Idea Lab

DLC | E-newsletter | June 25, 2010
Ban the Gerrymander

Should voters choose their politicians? Or should politicians choose their voters? Tennessee Representative John Tanner believes voters should choose. That's the premise of his two redistricting reform bills, the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act and the Transparency in Redistricting Act. They're a unique chance for America to break a decade-long slide toward permanent "gerrymanders," artificially intensified partisanship and legislative gridlock. For the next decade, they would create a political system better equipped to meet large policy challenges, more reflective of the moderate and pragmatic plurality of most Americans -- and also more democratic and fair.

Some introduction first: It's a truism to say that American politics are more polarized, angrier and partisan than they used to be. Political scientists suggest many explanations for this -- Bill Bishop's 'big sort', the radicalization of the Republican party, even blogging and information technology -- but none suffice on their own and none seem easy to solve. But the explanation that gets least attention is an obvious one that is easy to fix: Politicians have designed a system for polarization through "gerrymanders" favoring partisan safe districts over moderate swing districts.

How did this happen? The Constitution requires a Census every decade. As the results roll in we rewrite our political maps, shuffling a few House seats among states, and redrawing district lines inside states for state legislatures and the House of Representatives. In most cases, political experts hired by state legislatures and governors draw the maps, under the pressure of party solidarity and self-protection. Often the lines that appear on the maps match no geographic or community boundaries, but instead create communities of like-minded and predictable voters. The resulting gerrymandered districts are steadily more partisan, sometimes favoring the party in power and sometimes simply strengthening incumbents in both parties.

The trick is nearly as old as the nation, legendarily first pulled off by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1811. But though far from new, as 21st-century information technology replaced 19th-century intuition gerrymandering has grown more sophisticated, precise, and powerful than earlier pols could have imagined. The 2001 redistricting in particular left America's political maps more cluttered with grotesque and bizarre shapes than ever before. Where Gerry drew a crude baby dragon, his heirs in 2001 created 'centipedes' like the Sixth District of Ohio, 'earphones' like Illinois' Fourth District, a "spiral" in North Carolina's Third, and the "map of Italy" in Florida's Third.

Even this pales next to the political nuclear bomb of 2003, when Texas Republicans launched the first mid-decade gerrymandering in America's 216 years of Constitutional history. Their plan fell short of its ambitions -- while it did reshape the Texas delegation, it failed to build an impregnable Republican Congressional majority. (And left its designer, ex-Congressman Tom Delay, marooned in an eerie netherworld of legal defense funds and reality-TV appearances.) But even as a strategic failure, the Texas scheme opened up the nightmarish new possibility of continuous and permanent redistricting, carried out whenever parties have the power to do it.

As gerrymandering grew more effective, politics changed in response. A chart published last year by the Cook Political Report explains why. As the 2000 election approached, 159 of the House's 435 seats roughly mirrored the relatively even national vote, with Democratic and Republican registrations at most 5 percentage points apart. In another 158 relatively safe partisan seats, meanwhile, the parties were separated by 10 percentage points or more. In 2010, by contrast, only 104 districts have closely matched registration. Electorates in 216 districts are tilted by 10 percent or more.

In practical terms, this has made it harder for Congress to legislate. To increase the number of safely partisan districts is to raise the number of politicians on the left and right, whose main challenges might come in primaries. To reduce the number of swing districts, meanwhile, is to reduce the count of moderates who must appeal to a broad range of public opinion. The middle of Congress thus shrinks, while the right and left wings grow. Consensus approaches become harder to find. In such an environment the great challenges of the coming years -- highly technical and emotional issues like immigration, energy, and the gigantic social and fiscal challenge of baby-boom retirement -- will be all the more difficult to meet.

In more basic terms of principle, meanwhile, gerrymandering risks eroding the legitimacy of the political system.

As politics have become more polarized, voter opinions have not. If anything, the public is slightly more centrist now than in the recent past. Tuesday's New York Times poll finds moderates accounting for 42 percent of the electorate. This is a bit more than the 38 percent who identified themselves as moderate in 2000, and the 41 percent figure recorded in 1990. Self-described independents also make up a larger share of the 2010 electorate.

Thus while public opinion has remained stable and moderate, the House's maps create more partisan districts likely to elect representatives on the right and the left. To reduce the number of competitive districts and settle elections in primaries is to disenfranchise many of these moderate voters and independents. This depresses turnout among voters who know their elections have been won in advance, creates a Congress less reflective of the public will, and intensifies cynicism about politics in general. The same risk appears in state legislatures, of course.

So much for the diagnosis: now for the cure.

Gerrymandering is the least-debated cause of polarization, but the easiest to fix. The Constitution simply says representatives should be "apportioned among the States according to their respective numbers," and adjusted after the decennial census, but says nothing about how this must be done. Iowa long ago pioneered a non-partisan redistricting program, under which an unbiased commission draws a fair map with no spirals, bubbles or centipedes. The state legislature then votes on the result without amendment. Since then, Iowa has been joined by six more states. Congressman Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act draws on their experience to create a new system uniform across the nation and based on four fair and simple principles:

  • Governors and state legislatures would no longer be responsible for redistricting. Instead each state would appoint a non-partisan five-member commission to draw the new House boundaries, with both parties nominating two commissioners and the four then electing the final member.

  • These commissions would draft new maps based on simple principles: compliance with Constitutional requirements and civil rights laws; equal populations; geographical contiguity and compactness; and respect whenever possible for existing town and county borders. A look at Iowa's blocky, contiguous, non-confusing district map, drawn by commission in 2001, suggests a typical result.

  • State legislatures would then vote on the commissions' maps without amendment. If they cannot approve it, courts then take over the job.

  • No state could do a mid-decade redistricting. Redistricting would occur only once in each decade, after completion of the Census. Changes would then have to wait a decade, except in case of changes required by courts under the Voting Rights Act or similar overriding laws.

Accompanying this bill is a Transparency in Redistricting Act, under which states would have to hold public hearings, allow comment on the progress of redistricting, and run a website providing the public all the information from the Census on population, race, geography, and other factors available to commissioners and state legislators.

Under these reforms, districts will be fair -- designed not through political machinations but clear and transparent criteria that yield competitive races. The Congress that results will be somewhat less bound to party base constituencies and somewhat more reflective of the pragmatic, moderate majority of Americans. Thus the political system will be more able to win the public's confidence and respect.

The 2001 redistricting and its aftermath show how important redistricting reform is, both for practical reasons and for reasons of principle. Tanner's bills are the right response. The only catch is that there's limited time to act. The Census's summer workers are finishing up their visits, and by the fall the statisticians will be tabulating the results. By next June, redistricting will be well underway -- and without reform, politicians will once again be choosing voters. There is little time left and much work to do -- so the time for Congress to get started is now.


Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act:

And the Redistricting Transparency Act:

Iowa's redistricting system:

The Cook Political Report's chart of House seats by registration, in the 1990s and the last decade:

National Journal's Richard Cohen looks at the 2010 Census and its redistricting implications:

Gerrymandering: the Movie -- A recent film looks at the scandal hidden in plain sight: http://www.gerrymanderingmovie.com/content.php?

A clever game that lets you draw redistricting maps:

The League of Women Voters on redistricting reform:


The original --

Elbridge Gerry's remarkable career -- Declaration signer, Constitutional Convention delegate who voted against the Constitution, Federalist Congressman, commissioner to revolutionary France, Massachusetts governor, James Madison's vice president in 1813 and 1814 -- lives in national memory only through the gerrymander. As governor in 1811, Gerry designed a state Senate district encircling Cape Cod to block election of a Federalist Senator. A Federalist newspaper portrayed the district in a cartoon as a threatening winged reptile, or "Gerry-mander," and the name stuck. The Senate remembers our 5th vice-president, not in uniformly positive terms:

From the Library of Congress, the original 'Gerry-mandered' district:

Some modern inheritors:

Little Italy -- FL-3:

Earphones -- IL-4:

Spiral (or, alternatively, bear-claw) -- NC-3:

Centipede -- OH-6:

And America's weirdest-looking Congressional district:

Arizona's "man blowing bubbles across the Grand Canyon" or "glassblower" Second District -- done by commission, and the product of inter-tribal politics rather than a standard gerrymander -- is the oddity in an otherwise rational-looking division. Including the Hopi nation reservation, but not the Navajo reservation which encircles the Hopi land, it is mostly a stretch of western rural lands with a bulge toward Phoenix on the south. In the north, though, it jumps the Grand Canyon to include bubbles of Hopi land far to the east of the rest of the district, in the middle of the First District. AZ-2: