America’s Future – Gerrymandering

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Gerrymandering, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post:

Gerrymandering:  Gerrymandering has been a corrupt political power strategy in American politics for more than 200 years. It happens every ten years when a new census requires redistribution of Congressional representation among the states in accordance with relative changes in population counts. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing district boundaries to advantage one political party over the other and is exercised by both political parties, always with the intent of subverting the collective will of the people. The practice effectively allows political parties and Congressional politicians to choose their own constituents instead of the other way around. The strategy is named after Elbridge Gerry because as Governor in 1812 he signed a bill to redraw Massachusetts district boundaries to benefit his own political party; the shape of one resulting district was said to resemble a salamander, thus that name stuck.

In most states the political party in power in the state legislature draws the Congressional district boundaries.The goal therefore is always to design the state’s Congressional districts such that the voters likely to support the party out of power are mostly concentrated in as few districts as possible (packing), and/or alternately, to draw the districts so that minority party voters are distributed so broadly across districts that they have little influence on an election’s outcome (cracking).

That process was always seemly, but with the advent of big data and modern computer modeling the in-party can generate district boundaries with precision down to the precinct level. Using detailed voting history and these “cracking and packing” strategies they can control the majority of Congressional districts in a state regardless of the overall preference of the voters. That makes the practice very dangerous for democratic governance. Though the Supreme Court has had many opportunities to rule against this form of corruption they have so far declined, except in a few rare cases where racist motives were blatant and undeniable.

Besides being undemocratic gerrymandering produces a Congress that does not represent the collective will of the American people, but reflects the most extreme elements of the two political parties. That makes compromise nearly impossible on any issue where even small but significant differences of opinion exist. From its very beginning gerrymandering always made the Congress inefficient, often ineffective, in doing the people’s business. But with today’s sophisticated political machinery we are rapidly reaching the point where everything is politically contentious and nothing really useful and important can get done.

There are reasonable solutions to avoid this undemocratic practice. Congressional districts could be eliminated and candidates for Congress could just all run on a statewide basis. A better alternative would be for nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to be established to draw the district boundaries along pre-agreed rational guidelines taking into account existing local governance boundaries and regional intra-state economic conditions. Other redistricting arrangements could also be found that would produce much more democratic results than what we have now. The Congress has the constitutional authority to set the rules governing how federal elections are conducted. But we have to have the will to refine our institutions and eliminate this corruption. For long term national democratic viability gerrymandering must be eliminated as an acceptable political strategy.


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