In 1812, then Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry created an oddly-shaped district to favor his ally. Newspapers of the day decried it and said that the district resembled a salamander. This is the source of the word gerrymander. The practice of drawing district lines to favor one group over others is just about as old as the nation. Since passage of the Voting Rights Act, state and federal courts have forced the redrawing of maps gerrymandered to limit the voting rights of minorities. However, until very recently, gerrymandering to favor one political party over another has not been considered by the courts.
Why has the gerrymandering by the political parties in 2010 created problems? One answer is that modern mapping software has enabled the creation of district with specific voters with great precision. The data used for redistricting can be analyzed and manipulated at the census block level and modern GIS software programs will calculate the results for the user. The data produced at the census block level includes characteristics, such as age, race, gender, income, head of household, education, and marital status among other characteristics. This is a very fine level of detail. And those persons tasked with drawing new district boundaries know the characteristics of “their” voters. For example, married white women without a college education and white men without a college education tend to vote Republican. On the other hand, single female heads of household and black voters tend to vote for Democrats.
Both the knowledge of demographic group voting patterns and the ability to determine their geographic location of those groups, enabled partisan redistricting to reach new levels of effectiveness. The methods used in gerrymandering are called packing and cracking. Packing is the putting of as many members of a voting bloc as possible into as few districts as possible. The Texas 35th congressional district is is a long, narrow, heavily Hispanic district and an example of a packed district according to US District Judges. US District Judges have ruled that district is “an unconstitutional district drawn with the intent to discriminate”. In March 2017, a panel of federal judges ruled that the 35th district was illegally drawn with discriminatory intent.[In Federal Court Rules Three Texas Congressional Districts Illegally Drawn” by Laurel Wamsley, NPR, March 11, 2017] August 2017 there was another ruling that the district is unconstitutional.[“Federal court invalidates part of Texas congressional map”by Alexa Ura and Jim Malewitz, Texas Tribune, August 15, 2017]
On the other hand, the courts do not always invalidate districts that can be described as an example of packing. And the Illinois 4th district, which has the appearance of a horseshoe laying their side is an example of that. According to its designer, the Illinois 4th joins two Hispanic areas in Chicago in order to create a district that would have a majority Hispanic voting bloc within it. This district has been challenged in the courts, but they have not found it to be an illegally gerrymandered district. The major difference between the Texas 35th and the Illinois 4th is intent. In Illinois the two arms of the “horseshoe” on its side are two Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago and the neighborhoods needed to put into the same district in order to create a district that gave Hispanics a voice. The Texas 35th, on the other hand, packs the maximum number of Hispanics possible into a single district. The number of Hispanics “packed” into a single district could be put into at least two districts with enough Hispanics to have political influence. This difference is what makes the Texas 35th subject to judicial scrutiny and criticism, while the Illinois 4th has been ruled constitutional. The difference between the two districts is the intent of their creators: giving an electoral voice to a minority group with the Illinois 4th, as opposed to packing as many Hispanic voters as possible into a single district in order to limit minority influence to one district, the Texas 35th.
The second method used to limit the influence of political opponents is called cracking. Cracking is the practice of creating districts that separate a voting bloc, placing its members into two or more different districts that are dominated by other voter groups, which effectively diminishes or eliminates their voting power. For example, the Republican-drawn
congressional map split the Asheville, North Carolina urban area in two, putting the urban voters into two predominantly rural, Republican districts, Districts 10 and 11. The result was elimination of the political influence of the urban voters. It is interesting to note, the cracking of the Asheville urban area is found in the second congressional district map created which was by the Republican-dominated legislature since the 2010 census, because the courts struck down their first district map for racial gerrymandering. This second congressional district map has also run into trouble in the courts. [Blinder, Alan (2018). “North Carolina Congressional Map Ruled Unconstitutionally Gerrymandered”. The New York Times]. However, the US Supreme Court also placed a stay on the requirement to redraw the congressional districts map before the 2018 congressional elections. [“Supreme Court Blocks Redrawing of North Carolina Congressional Maps”. Reuters. 2018-01-20]
It should be noted that courts have been reluctant to intervene in redistricting on the basis of partisan gerrymandering. However, that attitude seems to be changing. In fact, recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional map went so far to benefit Republicans that it “clearly, plainly and palpably violated the state constitution”… Pennsylvania has been described as one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country, and analyses have found the map is responsible for at least three additional GOP seats in Congress. Republicans controlled the redistricting process in 2010 and drew the map to give themselves a considerable advantage. In the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections they won 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats, despite just winning about 50 percent of the vote statewide. The suit, brought by the League of Women Voters on behalf of 18 voters in each of the state’s congressional districts, said that GOP lawmakers had retaliated against Democratic voters for supporting Democratic candidates, violating the equal protection and free expression guarantees in the state constitution. Source: Huff Post, January 22, 2018. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court agreed and told the State Legislature to redraw the map. Legislators were unable to draw a new acceptable map. As a result, the State Supreme Court drew a new congressional map. Angry Republicans tried to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court and failed. They then threatened to hold a recall vote to remove the Supreme Court Judges from their elected offices. That effort failed to materialize. Pennsylvania will be using the congressional district map drawn by the State Supreme Court.
At present, the US Supreme Court considering partisan gerrymandering cases involving Wisconsin and Maryland. It appears that the courts are becoming more involved. However, positive change does not necessarily require action at the federal level. State voters can remove the redistricting process from the hands of politicians and choose to have redistricting done by independent commissions, such as those in Iowa and Arizona. Organized grassroots action at the state level, action to create non-partisan commissions or review boards, can achieve the limitation of gerrymandering. Most of us cannot write a job description to suit ourselves. Politicians should not be able to do that either.