How to teach gerrymandering and its many subtle, hard problems

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One of the counter-intuitive things I’ve learned about gerrymandering is like the line from Robert Frost’s Mending Wall:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

It turns out, gerrymandering isn’t always used to DILUTE voting blocs, but often rather to concentrate them. It helps explain why Indiana’s voting districts seem like a perfect example of non-gerrymandering: they don’t have to bother, because the district in Indianapolis is reliably Democratic. That’s their one blue district, overwhelmed on all sides by red.

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US gerrymandering always confuses me a bit. If you want party A to beat party B then when you want to do is create as many districts as you can that go 100% B until you’ve used up enough B voters that the rest will be able to go A with slim margins. For example, if you have 1000 people in each of 30 districts, then with perfect gerrymandering, you could get party A to win the most seats even if B was wining the popular vote 73-27. You want to concentrate the vote of the party that you want to lose.

The fault of this scheme is that if the vote shifts even a tiny amount (to, say, 74-26) then B will probably win all 30 seats.

But that’s not how gerrymandering works in the US. In the US is seems like gerrymandering is done to concentrate the vote of the party that they want to win. The point is to secure the seats of career politicians against all comers. It doesn’t seem to be done even to promote the interests of the party, but rather to promote the interests of the individual members who want to be re-elected. Of course now they are subject to being defeated in the primary by tea party candidates, which is, I guess, the well earned fate of these assholes.


And now you understand why the Chicago area is always on the Top Ten list for gerrymandering. That’s exactly how they do it here.

Keep in mind there’s an entire bag of tricks deployed to deal with any majority voters (from the “wrong” side) in case there is a shift that might cause an upset. Voter registration nonsense is a good example.


Not gerrymandering, but I like the way they keep O’Hare inside the city limits.


As you can imagine, that has to do with taxes.


This is true.
If you look at a lot of districts on a map, they will very often make a heck of a lot of sense.
I mean, how else are you going to draw them? There are downsides to just making a grid, for sure.

I have read of gerrymandering being done under both the theory of “create unassailable safe seats” and “make our party win the most seats”. Depends on who is doing it and why. Certainly no reason for the result to be accidental these days.

I really do not understand why voters accept gerrymandering as a given at all. It completely negates the very concept of representative government. Districts should be required to be drawn such that the length of the perimeter is the shortest distance possible, accommodating local topography. Compact districts would encourage civic participation and reduce political cynicism because the representatives would be so closely aligned with his/her constituents. What we have now makes everything that is taught in elementary school civics classes into an ugly lie.


I’m sure with today’s techniques compact districts could be gerrymandered quite effectively. Social boundaries do not follow geographical ones all that well.

I think the real ‘solution’ comes more from accepting that geography is a fairly poor proxy for most political interests these days and that better representation can be achieved by paying less attention to geography, not more. Electoral systems where voters can organize into blocks and elect candidates along whatever lines, geographical or otherwise, they find appropriate.

If a candidate wants to run based on a regional interest they can, and if the voters of that region respond that candidate can win. However the same is true along any other interest.


It’s very interesting to see how this sort of thing can be accomplished.

Another interactive tool that tries to teach the same thing, with examples of several different strategies for fixing the election result is this little web game, that I’ve seen before:

There’s a Supreme Court case challenging the notion of “one person, one vote”: Evenwel v. Abbott-- the challengers Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, argue that Texas should redistrict on the basis of number of voters, instead of number of persons— apparently in Texas, the disparity is not negligible.

The ACLU would like to defend the existing standard, as mucking about with the apportionment system is likely to create numerous opportunities for mischief. However, this stance may not be completely compatible with arguments against the use of blocs of prisoners as a redistricting tool.

Sometimes it works the other way around. In Texas, the Republicans hate Democrat Lloyd Doggett with a passion. Like, seriously, they really hate him. So they’ve redrawn districts just to get him out. He’s in his third district - he just moves - and has even managed to win a seat in a heavily Hispanic district. This is what it looks like:

Note how it follows I-35 in a narrow band, avoiding heavily Republican precincts and sticking with the heavily Hispanic ones in Austin and San Antonio. I’m pretty sure Doggett stays in Congress just to piss off the Republicans who keep trying to get rid of him.

By the way, of Texas’ 36 Representatives in the House, only three are white Democrats, and all three are from heavily Hispanic districts.


Just another reason to not like the Republicans

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I always thought that if an office was for a federal position (Congress, Senate), the Feds should have the final say. If Texas does something stupid in a district to keep Boss Hogg in Congress forever, the Feds should be able to come in and say ‘No, change it’. If Texas whines, the Feds say ‘Fine, no more money and we’ll start closing Federal facilities.’

By “the Feds”, do you mean elected officials? Can you see that there might be a problem there?

The question being, of course, who in the Federal Government gets to decide? Logically it would be Congress.

Some sates have set up independent committees as a way to keeps politics out. The Republicans tried to overturn Arizona’s law but failed. In California, where bipartisan gerrymandering (both parties working together to draw very safe seats) was a problem. Now the seats are much more competitive.

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Yeah I see the issue. This is why I tell people to write my name in for President. I can’t be any worse than the ‘system’ we have now

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Really the only way I think. We could have the UN come in and do it. That would make the Tea Parties happy!

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Well… it’s the districts around the concentrated district that are being diluted. So instead of a few blue districts, it’s just the one.