Gerrymandering is the widespread political practice of manipulating voting district boundaries to gain a political advantage, specifically in elections, by maximizing the number of likely voters for the party altering said district boundaries. This form of craven politicking has been going on since the early 19th century thanks to Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who, according to the Boston Weekly Messenger of 1812, made overtures *groan* to create a salamander-shaped voting district to favor his party. Hence “Gerry” + “salamander” = the “Gerry-mander,” later to become simply “gerrymander.”
In the news of late, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s Congressional map “clearly, plainly and palpably” violates the state constitution. It’s the latest of several recent court decisions recognizing and condemning the practice. The P-A ruling was recently challenged in and denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. This may well have wide-ranging consequences for the upcoming midterm elections in November.
You see, having checked, I can find nowhere in our beloved Constitution that enables or encourages electoral cheating. Gerrymandering is tantamount to challenging a rival team to a soccer match wherein you have the prescribed 11 players but your opposition is limited to a mere seven souls, somehow running around like headless chickens trying to plug the gaps. Oh! In the bargain, you get Lionel Messi on your team. The opposition is a bunch of dudes from the local bar who, while super-keen and lifelong soccer fans, are by no means among the best players in the history of the sport.
For a truly national perspective on the extent of gerrymandering, the Brennan Report (published by the New York University School of Law) offers some interesting facts and figures.
• In the 26 states that account for 85 percent of Congressional districts, Republicans derive a net benefit of at least 16-17 Congressional seats in the current Congress from partisan bias. This advantage represents a significant portion of the 24 seats Democrats would need to pick up to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.
• Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania consistently have the most extreme levels of partisan bias. Collectively, the distortion in their maps has accounted for seven to 10 extra Republican seats in each of the three elections since the 2011 redistricting, amounting to one-third to one-half of the total partisan bias across the states the report analyzed.
• Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia have less severe partisan bias but jointly account for most of the remaining net extra Republican seats in the examined states.
The Texas Tribune argues that gerrymandering helps legislators “avoid accountability” by using it to insulate themselves from “voters who disagree with them.” Seems a reasonable summation. Drawing clever political districts is one way politicians in Texas and elsewhere alter reality — by protecting themselves from voters who disagree with them. They do this by stuffing weirdly shaped geographic districts with voters who agree with them. Take a look at the Texas political “upside-down,” where stranger things happen. Just a week ago, federal judges ruled that some of Texas’ Congressional districts had been messed with to weaken the electoral power of the growing numbers of minority voters.
Per the Brennan Report, Texas is in the top seven states to exercise and benefit from gerrymandering. Never ones to be outdone, dumb or not, Texas legislators seem hell bent on becoming the top of flops when it comes to partisan election meddling. At a time when arch offender Pennsylvania is passing legislation to compel redrawing of the country’s most heavily altered state election map, Texas is, in a trademark witheringly inevitable fashion, spitting blood and marching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend its “right” to do, well, whatever it damn well pleases.
Between now and the midterms, a lot of earnest phone banking, door-to-door canvassing, new media targeting, and such will be done across the country, nowhere moreso than in Texas, which is giving its perennial coquettish eye flutter in the direction of being “in play” for Democrats. However, perhaps the most significant election action may be taking place in front of nine highly qualified folks in ghoulish black robes up in D.C.
Watch this not-so-oddly shaped space for more.