Old School Hack: Gerrymandering in America

By: Beth Goldstein Huxen

History shows that most politicians don’t need a hostile foreign power to steal an election-even if the current administration did. Since the inception of the United States of America as a sovereign nation, the issues of how to elect officials and who can be franchised has been front and center. Today, there are two means that are frequently used; the most heinous being voter suppression, which will be looked at in a different article and gerrymandering. Beth Goldstein Huxen explains what it is and offers a glimpse into a solution.

Gerrymandering is getting a lot of attention lately. As well it should, it’s a problem for our democracy. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing districts which unfairly advantage one group of voters. Typically, this means that one party is over-represented while the other is underrepresented. Professor Sam Wang describes it thus:

“Partisan gerrymandering is an offense to democracy. It creates districts that are skewed and uncompetitive, denying voters the ability to elect representatives who fairly reflect their views.” (NYT 12/5/15)

In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats got 50.5% of the vote but only 28% of the Representation. In Maryland the voters are about 60% Democratic and 30% Republican (10% other), but the representation is 85% Democratic, 15% Republican.

Gerrymandering can be deployed to favor either party, but lately it is the Republicans who have been more successful with it. It’s widely acknowledged that the House of Representatives is extremely gerrymandered.

After each census, new districts are drawn to reflect shifts in population. In the wake of the 2010 census Republicans undertook and were enormously successful at creating maps overwhelmingly, and unfairly, favorable to them. In 2012 Democrats won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, yet lost House of Representatives 201 seats to 234 seats. The majority of the votes were Democratic, but the majority of the representation was Republican.

The redistricting of 2011, sometimes referred to as The Great Gerrymander of 2011, created a House of Representatives with a large Republican majority. Many of those districts were so safe that they rendered elections “nearly irrelevant.”

On the whole, the gerrymander gave republicans a sizable boost, one which amounted to about a 7.5% head start A recent AP analysis showed that the gerrymander cost Democrats as many as 22 seats. Republicans hold 240 seats and Democrats hold 194. (Chaffetz’s seat is currently vacant, but will almost certainly be occupied by a Republican) If those 22 seats were Democratic instead of Republican the count would be Republicans 218, Democrats 216.

Partisan gerrymandering works by concentrating one party in as few districts as possible enabling that party to win those few districts with an overwhelming majority. The remaining members of that party are then spread among other districts, effectively diluting them. The technique is called cracking and packing.

Here’s an illustrative example. Let’s say a state has is 56% Blue party and 44% Red party. The state is divided up into 5 equal districts. By packing a single district with blue voters, then spreading the rest out to other districts the blue party is reduced to only 1 district, even though they are 56% of the populace.

In this instance Blue has 56% of the votes, but only 20% of the representation. And Red has only 44% of the votes, but gets 80% of the representation.

In real life, of course, voters rarely distributed into nice square like that. In real life gerrymandered districts tend to have VERY odd shapes.

Here are 3 examples:

Legal efforts to combat gerrymandering have met with mixed success. There is no explicitly stated constitutional requirement that apportionment creates districts which accurately represent the will of the voters.

But, in 1986, the court held that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional but created a fairly stringent legal standard. In order for a district to be ruled gerrymandered plaintiffs must show both that the discrimination is intentional and that it is effective. That is a difficult standard and somewhat unclear standard to meet. Trying to interpret and enforce it created a great deal of confusion, and led Justice Kennedy to write, “The failings of the many proposed standards for measuring the burden a gerrymander imposes on representational rights make our intervention improper…”

But he then added a call for a clear, objective standard when he later wrote in the same opinion, “Nevertheless, if workable standards do emerge to measure these burdens . . . courts should be prepared to order relief. (Vieth v Jubilirer, 2004)”

Thus the Court has been loathe to rule districts gerrymandered without a clear, mathematical analysis. They’re asking for an objective way of determining when a district is gerrymandered.

Mathematicians have attempted to answer that need with models relying on the oddly shaped geometry of gerrymandered districts. But there are other, legal factors which could create districts which look gerrymandered. As a result, the Supreme Court has therefore been a little wary of Geometrical analysis.

A new, statistical approach to analyzing gerrymandering is finding success. It’s expected to form the crux of the argument in the landmark gerrymandering case Whitford v Gill, which is headed to the Supreme Court for its 2017-2018 term.

The new method, created by law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos and political scientist Eric McGhee relies on the notion of voting efficiency. Votes over the winning threshold are extra votes. If, for instance, a certain candidate needs 50 votes to win but gets 90 votes, then the last 40 votes are wasted. Likewise, votes for a losing candidate are wasted votes. If you need 50 votes to win but only get 10 then votes those 10 votes are wasted.

In this 100 person example, the winning candidate wasted 40/100 or 40% of the votes. The losing candidate wasted 10% of the votes. The difference between them, called the efficiency gap, is 30. That’s a huge difference, and indicates gerrymandering. Stephanopolis and McGhee propose that any difference over 7 is indicative of gerrymandering.

This illustrative example is from the complaint:

“Suppose, for example, that there are five districts in a plan with 100 voters each. Suppose also that Party A wins three of the districts by a margin of 60 votes to 40, and that Party B wins two of them by a margin of 80 votes to 20. Then Party A wastes 10 votes in each of the three districts it wins and 20 votes in each of the two districts it loses, adding up to 70 wasted votes. Likewise, Party B wastes 30 votes in each of the two districts it wins and 40 votes in each of the three districts it loses, adding up to 180 wasted votes. The difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes is 110, which, when divided by 500 total votes, yields an efficiency gap of 22% in favor of Party A.”

Here’s what it looks like in a graphic, For simplicity’s sake Party A is in blue, Party B is in red. Party A has 220 votes, or 44% of the votes, and gets 60% of the representation. Party B has 56% of the votes but gets only 40% of the representation:

The Blue Party wasted 70 votes, but the Red Party wasted 180 votes. The difference between them (180 – 70) is 110 votes, or 22% of the 500 vote total. The Blue Party was much more efficient with its votes than the Red Party. The gap between their efficiencies, 22%, is a sign of gerrymandering. Stephanopoulos and McGhee propose that an efficiency gap of greater than 7% is indicative of gerrymandering.

An analysis by Stephanopolis and McGhee assigns Pennsylvania a 16.2 % efficiency gap, making our state one of the most gerrymandered in the nation.

There are various proposals to address gerrymandered districts, to undo gerrymander in existing districts, but few which provide a plan for making districts which would start off fair.

One such bill in Pennsylvania would take districting out of the hands of a 3 person commission and put it into a balanced citizens commission (4 Democrats, 4 Republicans, 3 Independents). The commission would only have access to the most basic of information when it draws the maps. Members of the commission could access population size and geographical features, but it would not know which areas were Republican strongholds and which were Democratic strongholds. They would be forced to draw districts knowing only how many people are in a district, and not knowing who those people are. It’s an interesting proposal which, if successful, could create a body of representatives which more accurately reflect the preferences of the voters they represent.

Beth Goldstein taught Social and Political Philosophy at such notable institutions as NYU and Binghamton University. Eventually though, she needed a job with benefits and ended up teaching Math at a small private High School outside of Philadelphia.


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