Gerrymandering: The Perversion of Democracy
The Constitution of the United States empowers Congress to carry out a census at least once every ten years, and to use the resulting population totals to determine representation in the House of Representatives such that each member represents a constituency of approximately the same population. This concept, which sits at the core of our democratic system, was unprecedented at the time of the Constitution’s passage into law, and has served well in affording equal representation to the populations of the various states. After the census is completed, the population totals are made publicly available and are used to inform the redistricting processes that occur in each state, both for congressional districts and state legislative districts (Census). In the process, certain states will gain or lose representation in the House of Representatives due to population shifts, forcing them to carve out new districts that more accurately reflect the new information. Even the states that neither gain nor lose representation must redraw the lines of their districts in order to adequately account for the shifts of the population within the state (Draper 2012).
It must be noted, however, that the United States Constitution does not dictate the processes by which the states redesign districts. This has resulted in highly differentiated and often highly politicized redistricting processes in many states. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 37 states afford their respective state legislatures the authority to control state legislative redistricting, and 43 states give the state legislature primary control over the process of drawing congressional districts (Brennan Center). This means that whatever party is in control of the legislature of a given state when the census occurs is capable of redrawing districts in a way that disproportionately favors their own party in both the state legislature and in the state’s congressional delegation. This process often results in the creation of very oddly-shaped districts for the sake of political gain, a tactic known as gerrymandering. Allowing state legislatures to control the redistricting process provides them with a set of incentives that are problematic to the goals of democratic representation; legislators are allowed to use completely legal redistricting processes to effectively rig elections in their own favor.
Defining the Problem
In the words of Thomas Mann, a Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, “Redistricting is a deeply political process, with incumbents actively seeking to minimize the risk to themselves (via bipartisan gerrymanders) or to gain additional seats for their party (via partisan gerrymanders)”(Mann). The bipartisan gerrymandering that Mann mentions refers to the fact that legislators also have substantial motivation to gerrymander districts even when such redistricting does not provide an advantage to their party. Gerrymandering of state legislative districts can effectively guarantee an incumbent’s victory by ‘shoring up’ a district with higher levels of partisan support. This becomes highly problematic from a governance perspective, because forming districts to ensure high levels of partisanship will ultimately lead to even higher levels of partisanship in Congress. If a substantial number of congressional districts are designed to be polarized, then the representatives they elect will also act in a heavily partisan manner, which leads to the kind of partisan gridlock that has become commonplace in recent years.
When assessing the possible impact that bipartisan gerrymandering on the success of incumbent candidates for the House, it can be helpful to compare incumbency rates between the gerrymandering-subjected House of Representatives and the Senate because the Senate is not subject to redistricting. Figure 1 compares the rates at which incumbents seeking reelection win in the House and Senate from 1964 through 2010, revealing that the House generally has significantly higher incumbency rates than those found in the Senate. While a certain amount of this difference could be attributed to random chance and the shorter term lengths of House members, there seems to be a high likelihood that the redistricting processes have had a significant impact on the likelihood of incumbents’ victories in the House.
The 2012 election provides us with a number of examples as to how partisan gerrymandering can have a substantive impact on the results of an election. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives received 83,000 more votes than Republican candidates. Despite the fact that Democratic candidates won more votes, however, the Republican-controlled redistricting process in 2010 resulted in Democrats losing to their Republican counterparts in 13 out of Pennsylvania’s 18 districts (Ting 2013). In the seven states where Republicans had complete control over the redistricting process, Republican House candidates received 16.7 million votes and Democratic House candidates received 16.4 million votes. The redistricting resulted in Republican victories in 73 out of the 107 affected seats; in those 7 states, Republicans received 50.4% of the votes but won in over 68% of the congressional districts. On the national level, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives received 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts, yet Democrats only won 201 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives (Wang 2013). Regardless of one’s party affiliation, this kind of disproportional representation of the public will cannot be considered good for the legitimacy of a democratic system.
The redistricting processes as they are currently carried out by the states pose a serious threat to both the legitimacy of our democratic system and the functioning of our legislative bodies. Both partisan and bipartisan gerrymandering are salient problems that must be addressed if representative democracy is to function properly in the United States. Partisan gerrymandering has resulted in elected bodies that no longer represent the political composition of our citizenry, and bipartisan gerrymandering has caused a significant degree of hyper-partisanship, especially in the 112th Congress which set records as the least legislatively productive congressional session in over 60 years (Terkel 2013).
The Brennan Center for Justice. “Brennan Center for Justice.” National Overview of Redistricting: Who Draws the Lines? New York University Law School, 1 June 2010. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Draper, Robert. "The League of Dangerous Mapmakers." The Atlantic. Theatlantic.com, Oct. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Kusnetz, Nicholas. “Behind Closed Doors: GOP and Dems Alike Cloaked Redistricting in Secrecy.” NBC News. 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 03 Mar. 2013.
Mann, Thomas E. “Redistricting Reform.” The Brookings Institution. Brookings.edu, 1 June 2005. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Nagourney, Adam. “New Faces Set For California In the Capitol.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.
OpenSecrets.org. “Reelection Rates Over the Years.” OpenSecrets Center for Responsive Politics. Opensecrets.org, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Siegel, Jim. “Study of GOP Maps Points to Politics.” Dispatch.com. The Columbus Dispatch, 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.
Terkel, Amanda. “112th Congress Set To Become Most Unproductive Since 1940s.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Ting, Jan C. “Boehner and House Republicans Lack Mandate to Oppose Obama.” NewsWorks. NewsWorks.Org, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
United States Census Bureau. “Census in the Constitution.” – 2010 Census. Census.gov. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Wang, Sam. “The Great Gerrymander of 2012.” The New York Times. 2 Feb. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.