By Antigoni Woodland
Gerrymandering is the single worst problem in American democracy today. Full stop. And this is not hyperbole.
How does a minority party end up ruling the country, literally? Gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the drawing of boundary lines of Congressional districts in a way that is favorable to one party, while disenfranchising another. Drawing boundary lines, known as redistricting, occurs every 10 years, after a census. And the lines are drawn based on population, since each district in a state must have the same number of constituents. In Massachusetts, as in most states, district lines are drawn by the legislature. Gerrymandering is when this redistricting occurs in a manner that renders the opposition’s vote as useless as possible.
The word gerrymander was first used in 1812 to describe Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry. These districts were drawn out to benefit his party and when mapped out they looked like a salamander. Thus the term gerry-mander.
So, how does this matter exactly? Well, consider this: the approval rating of Congress, according to a Gallup poll from January of 2017, is 19%. How then were 97% of incumbents to the House of Representatives and 93% of Senate incumbents re-elected in 2016? Yep, you guessed it: gerrymandering. The party in control stays in control because the rules are being used to protect incumbents and party majorities and then they make more rules to keep it that way.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency and the Democrats took over the Senate. The Democrats also held the house. Instead of despairing, the GOP hatched a brilliant plan. They recognized that 2010 was a census year and spent $30 million on state races to capture the state legislatures. Which they did. And then they provided these legislatures with technological and legal help to gerrymander these districts, a strategy known as REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project). According to David Daley, author of Rat F**cked: How the Democrats Won the Presidency but Lost America, “this is the biggest political heist, and the biggest political bargain, in modern history.” Essentially, a ratf*ck. In political arenas, a ratf*ck is a “dirty deed, done dirt cheap.”
The first test of REDMAP was in Pennsylvania in 2012. Democratic congressional candidates won 100,000 more votes than Republicans but Republicans won 13 out of the 18 congressional seats. How could this happen? Well, they packed the Democrats into five seats around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The rest were all Republican.
Here is a simplified diagram of gerrymandering at work:
If you pack the Democrats into as few districts as possible, it is possible for Republicans to win surrounding districts even though they may not get the majority of the vote, generally. In these non-competitive districts, there is no incentive to compromise, as those who oppose Trump are starting to learn. And if it is highly likely, because of gerrymandering, that the incumbent will win in the next election, what is your incentive to vote?
But there is some good news. Several court rulings across the country have failed to uphold gerrymandered districting. And, last month, the Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina congressional map that attempted to reduce the voting power of African American citizens by gerrymander.
In Massachusetts, Senator James Eldridge and Representative Bradley Jones have sponsored S349/H59, “Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution establishing an independent redistricting commission.” We can each contact our state senators and representatives and lend our support for these bills.