XTREME Civics & Comparative Gov’t: How to Gerrymander a Voting District

One of the fundamental challenges facing any voting system that allows for local representation is how to draw those local districts. In those systems, the need for local representation comes into conflict with the need to achieve a system that represents the whole voting populace. Some people tend to find it unfair if the outcome of the election changes if you split one region into multiple smaller districts. 

The premier examples of this are the US House of Representatives, the Canadian House of Commons, and the granddaddy of them all; the British House of Commons: all of these systems allow (and, in the very recent past, have allowed) parties to form absolute majorities in the House while those same parties fail to get absolute majorities of the vote. Because the United States has no significant third parties, their results are even more lopsided: the smaller of the two major parties in the House can sometimes command a majority of the votes cast—for instance, in the 2012 House elections, 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for Democratic candidates, rather than Republican candidates, yet the Republicans earned 33 more seats in Congress than the Democrats did. 

As we discussed in the previous two installments, there are all sorts of ways for voting systems to solve this problem. And there are even non-voting ways to mitigate this, potentially, such as federalism, which we’ll cover in a later installment. But today we’re not as concerned with the solution, we’re concerned with the problem.

So why is this, why does this happen? Well, it’s because of how the districts are drawn.

In every country with representative government, there is a question of how small to draw the districts. It’s one of the big challenges of voting systems. In a perfect world, dividing the whole into smaller constituent parts would not alter the outcome. But in virtually every system that does not have national proportional voting, it does (except for you two, Malta and Ireland, that’s Single Transferable Vote’s advantage).

It’s worth remembering, there’s plenty of compelling reasons to draw local districts, despite the problems they cause, rather than taking the whole result of a nation. Just for starters, most nations are amalgams of constituent states, who came with their own identities, histories, demographics, and culture. Local districts are most often drawn over these historical boundaries. For instance, the provinces of Italy roughly correspond to the dukedoms of old, the states of Germany roughly correspond to the kingdoms, principalities, and Imperial Free Cities of the Holy Roman Empire, and the first thirteen states of the US correspond to the original thirteen British colonies. Because of those accidents of history, many of which were created by governments with monarchies or limited suffrage, mapping representative government over them becomes a challenge. 

One of my obvious inherent biases is that I’m an American, and so I filter a lot of this through an essentially American prism. But when it comes to district drawing, American congressional representative districts are uniquely instructive in how a district’s voter composition can be used to manipulate outcomes. That’s both because of the long history of district manipulation in the United States, and because of the long (but much shorter) history of the attempts to counterbalance that manipulation.

But it is worth noting that Americans did not invent the concept of manipulated districts. Rather, it’s as British as First Past the Post. Prior to the 1832 Reform Act, the British Parliament included districts called rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs. Rotten boroughs were districts that had been drawn over a historical boundary originally, but where the population had so declined that it was easy for a relatively wealthy person to influence the outcome of elections (there was no secret ballot in Britain until the 1870s). Pocket boroughs were districts where, because of certain restrictions on suffrage, it was easy for a wealthy landowner to purchase enough of the borough to control the election. In many cases, these wealthy individuals or families were noble peerages, meaning they sat in the House of Lords, Britain’s upper chamber, and then selected a candidate for the House of Commons to benefit from the largess of their patronage.

This works because if you know who voters in a district will generally vote for, you can fairly accurately predict the outcome. In pre-1832 Britain, this was because peers and landlords had direct influence over the outcome of votes: they could just evict or extort renters into voting the preferred way.

In 1812 Massachusetts, Democratic-Republican Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that would reshape state senate districts. The districts were drawn in such a way that the Democratic-Republicans’ opponents, the Federalist Party would receive fewer representatives in the state government than they should according to their votes. One in particular, in Essex County, was said to resemble a salamander, and thus the “gerrymander” was born. 

Gerrymandering is insidious because it’s born out of a real pressing need to remake districts on a fairly regular time scale. Most jurisdictions attempt to create a fairly equal distribution of Number of People to Representatives. For instance, the US originally tried to have one representative for roughly every 50,000 people. The problem, as rotten boroughs show, is that people change, but borders do not. So what was a roughly proportional division of people into congressional districts in 1790 was not come 1800, and was even worse come 1810 (and I’ve highlighted those years, because in the US, those are the years of the national census, after which Congress is obligated to reapportion representatives to the states). 

Gerrymanders have two major tools that they use to create inequity: packing and cracking.

“Packing” is the process of drawing a district’s lines in such a way that as many voters as possible of a particular persuasion (usually political party, though not always) end up inside the bounds of that district, and as few of those voters as possible end up outside the district. By concentrating those voters in one district, that district becomes overly safe for their party, diluting their influence over the other districts. They win that one district, and the others are made safer for the other party. 

“Cracking” is the opposite process: drawing districts so that a certain group of voters is spread over as much ground as possible, so that their influence is diluted as much as possible. So, in our example above, one way might be to 

For example, here’s a population of 100 voters, 84 of whom are Blue, and 16 of whom are Green. The Greens live in an enclave, surrounded by Blues:

These 100 voters have been assigned 5 representatives, meaning that they need 5 districts, each with 20 voters. Blues are in charge of drawing the districts, as they are the largest population, and they have decided to remove the Greens’ political power as much as possible.

To pack, when they drew districts, they would simply put all 16 Greens in the same district, guaranteeing the Greens that one district, and ensuring that it would take a nearly impossible sea change in the political sphere for Blues to vote Green in the other four districts, like so:

This makes four districts “safe” for Blues, and one district “solid” for Greens.

To crack the Greens’ power, they would break them up among as many other districts as they wanted, as in this example:

In this case, they’ve created one “safe” Blue district, two very “solid” Blue districts, and two “lean” Blue districts. While more districts are in theory riskier than the packing example, it’s also more likely to result in the Greens getting no representation at all.

Now, this is a simplistic scenario, using colorful blocks. Not a real life example, right? But, as long as you have a map of voting (or any other proxy for voting you’d like), you can manipulate any set of maps you’d like.  

So, here’s a scenario in which, just by switching some (or a lot of) counties from some states to other, Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 election with 420 electoral votes, and Donald Trump loses with 118 electoral votes. Keep in mind, in this map, we haven’t changed either the number of voters in the US as a whole, or who they voted for—all I have done here is transfer countries from one state to the other. Electoral vote apportionment has also been changed to reflect new populations of these gerrymandered states:

You can see that this is achieved with a combination of packing and cracking. For instance, Tennessee has been packed with counties that voted for Donald Trump from its southern neighbors in order to turn North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi for Hillary Clinton. Wisconsin and Florida have been cracked—Wisconsin loses five counties to Illinois, which changes Illinois’ outcome not at all, while switching Wisconsin to Clinton, while Florida loses its panhandle to a Louisiana that now eats almost all of the coast. Many other states have gone through similar contortions.

And if this looks weird and gross to you, that’s the point. Gerrymander is literally twisting the shape of a district into a form that purposefully distorts democracy. You can play around with my map here, or with the regular 2016 map here:  https://kevinhayeswilson.com/redraw/

There are two more things worth talking about when it comes to gerrymandering. The first is the “affirmative racial gerrymander.” This is mostly an artifact of US politics and history, so it may not apply to every country, although many countries have similar requirements around race, ethnicity, and culture when drawing districts or assigning seats.

Prior to the 1960s, American politicians had another motivation to redraw districts based on voter composition other than partisan identity, though they closely tracked; instead, the concern was racial identity. Particularly in the South (though hardly exclusive to that region), the idea was to dilute racial minorities’ electoral power and keep them from sending anyone from that minority group to Congress or state legislatures. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, it became illegal for states to draw their districts in a way that were meant to explicitly prevent minorities from exerting their proper electoral influence. 

However, for a number of reasons we don’t have much time to get into, legal challenges abound with racially drawn districts. For instance, if many of your state’s black voters live in a city, does drawing a district that encompasses that entire city enfranchise those voters to elect a representative of their choosing, or is it packing? How does one tell? Especially if partisan divisions and racial divisions are rough proxies for one another? (For what it’s worth, while the US Supreme Court has punted on this question, state Supreme Courts tend to take a dimmer view of majority-minority districts drawn in such a way to pack their voters together).

Complicating this is the second thing worth discussing with the gerrymander: what is the ideal partisan composition for districts, especially in states where one party greatly outnumbers the other? 

To go back to our overly simple example again, let’s draw districts in two new ways. The first is uniform composition of all districts. In this case, each district has 3 Greens and 17 Blues, except for one district that has 4 Greens and 16 Blues. 

While that’s a fair metric—no district is drawn under any different criteria than any other district—if that looks like cracking, that’s because it is. It’s even more egregious than our cracking example above. So creating uniform districts is maybe not the best decision.

There’s another way to draw districts, and that’s to maximize the number of competitive districts, or districts where more than one party has a reasonable shot at winning (also called marginal seats in other English-speaking countries or swing seats in the US). Here’s what that would look like, splitting the Greens evenly into two districts to maximize their electoral chances:

But as we know from our First Past The Post coverage in the first installment of this series, in an FPTP election, there are many cases where a competitive district could result in, essentially, the same return: all Blue reps, no Greens. So even though the Blues are held to three guaranteed seats, they could still get all the seats without trouble. 

And this is where it may be valuable to look at proportional voting systems when deciding districts. In a proportional system, the Greens would almost certainly win at least one seat every election. So, maybe…the packed district from the first example is our fairest seat?

As always, this is first and foremost a choice. Districts drawn to guarantee a proportional outcome are “fair” in the sense that everyone gets the proper number of representatives in the legislature, but they’re unfair in that they often anoint the winning party before the election has ever happened (though there’s always a chance that it doesn’t happen that way). Districts drawn to be competitive can end up with horribly lopsided outcomes, because that’s within the realm of possible in any FPTP election. 

Not surprisingly, most countries and the few states that have left district boundaries up to a neutral or nonpartisan body tend to split the difference. Using a number of different criteria, such as geographical compactness, racial, ethnic, and cultural composition, historical boundaries, etc., they tend to create a number of districts of different degrees of safety for the parties, varying from very safe districts, to districts that could go either way. And they often draw it in such a way that the marginal seats determine the balance of power in the legislature.

Which creates its own problem! Because now voters in those competitive districts become extra important. 

And, as long as you have first past the post elections or multi-member proportional districts with less than 5 representatives, you’re almost always likely to have questions about gerrymandering. So you’re going to have to make choices about who goes where and how the borders are drawn.

As always, what seems right to you? How would you deal with this? Is there a good way to deal with this beyond simply changing the method of voting? Hope this sparks some questions and conversations down below!