Gerrymandering and Reapportionment: An Explanation of Both and How They Work
Gerrymandering, Redistricting, and Reapportionment All Mean the Same Thing
Reapportionment and redistricting mean essentially the same thing. After a Census has been completed, it must be determined if a state’s government as well as that state’s county, and local governments have sufficient representatives for their population. Even the number of school board members in each community may also need to be adjusted.
District boundaries within a state are usually drawn according to the population in each district for starters. If a Census shows there has been considerable growth, or that a lot of people have left a particular state, then the state’s districts will have to be redrawn.
If you read my article/hub on the Census, you will see that as a result of the 2010 Census, 10 states will gain more members in the House of Representatives in Washington D.C., and 12 states have lost House members. To find out which states are affected, read my hub titled: Census and Why It Matters: How Will Reapportionment Affect Your State? Why Do Census Takers Ask Those Nosy Questions? You can access this hub from the link on the right side of this page.
Each member of the House represents a certain number of people. According to the House of Representatives website, that number is currently 600,000 people. So each district in every state should have 600,000 people in it, give or take a few. Unlikely it would be possible to draw the district lines precisely so that exactly 600,000 people would live within a district, true? They get as close as they can.
Currently the total number of House of Representatives members is 435. Congress has the ability to increase that number, but has not done so on a permanent basis since 1911. To avoid increasing the number of representatives in the U.S. House, it is necessary to assign each representative to serve a greater number of citizens as our country’s population expands. The more people a member of the House represents, the less accessible s/he becomes to his or her constituents.
As a result, the boundaries of the districts in each state must change every 10 years to accommodate the new population count from the most recent census. To learn how the 435 representatives are apportioned (divided) to all of the states fairly, click here.
Gerrymandering also means redrawing district boundaries, but it includes a lot of politics in the process.
Most state legislatures have primary control over both the state and Congressional redistricting process of their states. Once the boundary lines of districts are drawn, they are presented for vote in their state’s legislature like any other bill.
Some states engage an independent commission to redraw district boundaries. Some states forbid state officials from participating in the redrawing while other states allow it. Even when politicians do not participate directly in the redrawing of district boundaries, they do have the ability to vote against proposals they object to. As a result, the majority party, or political party in power, usually has a lot of control over where the new district boundary lines are drawn.
I am including photos of maps from a few states showing district boundaries so that you can see how convoluted some districts are drawn in order to make them advantages to the politicians in that district.
The reason district lines are often drawn the way they are is to favor the political party in power. This is not an exercise in finger pointing because both major Parties in the U.S. do their best to gerrymander district boundaries to their party’s advantage when they can.
Why does it matter where the district boundaries are drawn? If you favor term limits for politicians pay attention here.
If it did not matter where the district boundaries are drawn, a state would simply leave it to a staff member to draw lines as evenly divided throughout the state as possible according to population (not area). If it did not matter where the district boundaries are drawn, there would be no such thing as gerrymandering.
By its definition, gerrymandering is manipulating district boundaries for political gain of one political party or another.
It does matter where the boundaries of districts within each state are drawn. It matters to the politicians in each state, and it is extremely important to the voters and citizens of each state – though most citizens are generally uninformed of this fact.
Where the boundaries of a district are drawn plays a big part in determining which political party is likely to prevail in every election, especially statewide and nationwide elections. Since it is true that a state’s district lines impact the results of national elections, it is also true that district boundaries in every state affect every citizen of this country.
When a particular political party is in power or in the majority, that party naturally wants to give its candidates every advantage so that the party can remain in power. So party politicians do everything they can to make sure every district has a majority of people in it who are likely to vote for themselves and their party’s other candidates.
By making as certain as possible that every district is made up of at least 60% (or a majority at the least) of people who regularly vote for their party’s candidates, currently sitting politicians can keep a member of their party in office indefinitely – that party member is usually themselves.
People who favor term limits should take this to heart. Once a party is in power, especially if they are in power right after a new census has been completed, that party will do everything to assure that the new district boundaries in their state will favor their own reelection as well the election of other politicians of their party. Only the majority party can succeed with this plan, and as I explained earlier, both major U.S. parties take advantage of this current process when they can.
Sometimes the minority party can limit the majority party’s power
Sometimes it is possible for the minority party to block efforts on the part of the majority party to redraw district boundaries entirely to their own advantage. That happens when the majority party does not have that big of a majority.
For example, if the majority party holds or controls 60% or more of the seats in the state legislature and Congressional seats, it is all but assured that that party will control where new district boundaries are drawn. It need not be a full 60%. It could be less depending on the circumstances at the time.
If the majority party holds only a small majority (51% or slightly more), that can give the minority party the opportunity to flummox any plans of patronizing the districts within that particular state. If conditions are right, the minority party may be able to force a filibuster to prevent the majority party from getting their way, at least for the duration of the filibuster. The filibuster has been used many times in the history of this country as well as by individual state legislatures to prevent passage of bills on all kinds of things.
Politicians and political parties rule when it comes to redistricting
In most states the legislature has the last word in where district boundaries are drawn. The majority party, or party in power, determines where those district boundaries will be, and they make every effort to guarantee their own advantage in being reelected and in electing more members of their own party. How do they do that?
They do that by making certain that the majority of voters in each district have a strong history of voting for members of their political party.
We know how most states in the U.S. are likely to vote in a presidential election. The reason a state is referred to as a red state or a blue state is because the majority of districts within that state can be depended on to vote Republican or Democrat. By knowing that, we can often predict which states will vote for a particular presidential candidate.
Even though it is not known which candidate a voter has cast his or her vote for, we still get a total of the results of which candidate(s) the majority of voters in a particular district voted for. If a district votes consistently for candidates of a particular party over a period of time, it is usually safe to predict they will continue to do so.
When district boundaries are redrawn, the party a particular district has consistently favored will attempt to keep that district as much in tact as possible, adding only a small percentage of new people to that district if need be, in order to keep the votes of people added to that district watered down, so to speak.
The opposition party will do exactly the opposite with the district described in the paragraph above. The opposition party will make every effort to divide that district, splitting portions of it up between other districts that have a history of consistently voting for the opposition party. By doing that it is possible to neutralize the votes against them and keep their party in power for a long time.
In addition to knowing which way most districts will vote by their voting history, there are telephone surveys taken on a regular basis around election dates, and in that case, it is possible to know how individual people will vote. They will not ask for your name, but they already have your phone number.
Telephone surveys are fairly expensive so that whoever funds them is likely to keep every piece of information gleaned from them in a file somewhere. It is not my intention to create paranoia here, but to simply point out how things really work as opposed to the way a lot of people seem to imagine they work. Most people look out for themselves first, and it is in the interest of politicians to know where their advantages lie.
Here is an example of an unusual gerrymandering plan that was enacted in California
According to Wikipedia’s California Politics under Bi-Partisan gerrymandering, “After the 2000 census, the legislature was obliged to set new district boundaries, both for the state Assembly and Senate and for federal congressional districts (CDs). The Republican and Democratic parties came to an agreement to gerrymander the boundaries. It was mutually decided that the status quo in terms of balance of power would be preserved. With this goal, districts were assigned to voters in such a way that they were dominated by one or the other party, with few districts that could be considered competitive.
In only a few cases did this require extremely convoluted boundaries, but [nevertheless] resulted in preservation of existing strongholds.” In other words, incumbents of both parties in those districts had no need to be concerned about losing an election for years to come.
Rarely does gerrymandering go the way it did in California in 2001, but it usually does favor the majority party -- the party in power, whether that is the Republicans or the Democrats. In 2000, the parties in power were divided almost evenly in California, including Independents.
The two parties resolved their dilemma by working together to all but guarantee each of them would be reelected in several elections to come. Who says our political parties cannot work together? Even though in this case it was for their own individual benefit and not the voters’ benefit.
Gerrymandering Never Benefits the Voters
The most important thing to remember about who gets the advantage in gerrymandering is that it is NEVER the voters. It is always the Democrat or the Republican Party, as well as the benefit of sitting politicians here in the U.S., except for that one rare occasion in California where politicians of both parties looked out for each other. Even then, they did not concern themselves with what was best for their constituents.
Lots of people have made suggestions about how gerrymandering could be avoided and some states are taking steps to improve the practice to benefit the voters of their states more, but for now things are as described here.
If you would like more information about how specific states do redistricting, click here.
To learn more about how redistricting and gerrymandering work, watch the following short, but entertaining video.
Texas Special Redistricting Problems
Currently, Texas is in the midst of a redistricting war of sorts. The state of Texas is dominated by Republicans. Through gerrymandering, Republicans have attempted to water down minority votes by piecing out their neighborhoods and communities into larger Conservative stronghold districts. A process I described earlier in this document.
If “piecing out” is not clear, think about how thieves part out a vehicle. They do not steal the entire vehicle, but remove parts of it and sell them. So voting districts are treated the same way. In gerrymandering, the majority party will often ‘piece out’ parts of a district that is a stronghold for their opposition, dividing that district and including its parts in various other districts more favorable to themselves, thus watering down the influence of those districts in elections. Divide and conquor.
In the last census, Texas gained 4 million new citizens, mostly minorities that generally vote Democratic. It was necessary to create 4 new districts to accommodate them. However Republicans drew the boundary lines of those districts so that their party would have the overwhelming advantage in 3 of them.
As Aaron Blake, writing for the Washington Post points out, “The problem for Texas Republicans . . . and for the lawmakers in [all] other Southern states, [is that] their maps have to gain what is called “pre-clearance” from either the Justice Department or a Washington, D.C., district court, which verifies that their [redistricting] maps comply with the minority-protection standards in the Voting Rights Act. The reason Texas and other Southern states must get approval from Washing D.C. for their redistricting maps is because of their history of voting discrimination.
According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court of the United States is expected to rule on this case in August 2012.
A Simple Explanation of Redistricting
Questions & Answers
© 2012 C E Clark