After four failed campaigns, Elbridge Gerry was finally elected governor of Massachusetts in 1810. Wishing to ensure his political party’s domination in the state, Gerry carved out a favorable electorate for his party that many observers likened to a salamander. As a result, this salamander shape became known as a “gerrymander”.
The Salem Gazette in 1813 had this to say about the original ‘Gerrymander:’ “Again behold and shudder at the exhibition of this terrific Dragon, brought forth to swallow and devour your Liberties and equal Rights. . . . Arise, then, injured Citizens!”
When Governor Gerry signed that first district of its kind into law, he set in motion more than two hundred years of partisan struggle over legislative redistricting. Although these practices are almost as old as the Republic, research tells us that non-compact district drawing has increased sharply over the last five decades. By law, legislative districts must be reexamined after every government census, but keeping them fair and representative has proven to be a difficult task.
As a consequence of both the increase in gerrymandered districts and fears of partisan antics, multiple legal challenges to the constitutionality of these designs have burst into courtrooms all across the nation. Wisconsin is one of the latest such states to have the courts rule against partisan reapportionment. Although some opponents of partisan gerrymandering cheer at these recent courtroom challenges, others fear a circling of the wagons as politicians seek new ways to maintain control over legislative districts and votes. Perhaps the landmark Supreme Court case in 2013 that struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act could lead to a sharp rise in racial gerrymandering again, as Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent.
To counter the effects of gerrymandering, some states have turned to commissions to help draw up fair and representative districts. Currently, 13 states use some form of a commission. Only six states use truly Independent Commissions. Georgia is looking to become the seventh after the introduction of Senate Resolution 6 and House Resolution 3 for the 2017 legislative session (current district maps can be seen here).
How does Gerrymandering work?
The Washington Post has a great article explaining gerrymandering, but in a nutshell, it is the process of dividing up the voters into districts that will either help the politicians stay in power or hurt their opponents chances of winning more seats.
For example, consider the graphic here. Both Figure A and B have 36 squares, or “people”. 24 are Red and 12 are Blue. In a perfect world, there would be equal representation of Red and Blue on a 2 to 1 ratio. Instead, we see in Figure A that Blue is just as powerful as Red, each having 2 districts. In Figure B, the opposite is true. Here, Red has all 4 districts and none for Blue. Nothing changed except the way the maps were drawn to allocate which districts had which voters.
Some of the worst offending districts are in the South and East Coast. Consider the following graphic depicting six real-life examples of gerrymandered districts. How accurately do you suppose these districts represent their constituents or communities?
From left to right (top row):
- North Carolina’s 12th District
- Florida’s 5th District
- Pennsylvania’s 7th District
From left to right (bottom row):
- Maryland’s 3rd District
- North Carolina’s 1st District
- Texas’s 33rd District
How does gerrymandering affect Georgia?
Whether you are registered to vote or not, the Supreme Court has made it clear that your voice matters. Considering that polls show an almost equal split between those that identify as either a Democrat or Republican in Georgia, we would expect to see roughly equal representation of the parties in our local legislature. The reality is vastly different. Despite less than a 4 percent gap between Republican and Democrat party affiliation in the state, Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2 to 1 in the state legislature. Additionally, the number of districts that Republicans control across the state (both Senate and House) has significantly increased from 2009 to 2016.
Even if every Democrat running for office in the state of Georgia had won their race, they still wouldn’t catch up with the Republicans in legislative power. This is happening all over the country. Despite the fact that Democrats have historically outnumbered Republicans in national polls, 30 state legislatures are entirely Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House. Republicans in 2017 have more state legislative control than at any other time in history. In three short years the Census will be taken and, by law, new maps will be drawn. Republicans are in a very strong position to control maps all across the country unless the 2018 elections drastically alter the balance of power. Though some critics point out that both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering (Maryland and California are two Democratic examples), the research is clear: the art of extreme gerrymandering is almost exclusively a Republican trait.
Republican voters shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security, though. Evidence suggests politicians are often more true to their party than they are the wishes of their constituents. For example, Republicans have become so adept at turning their districts red that they have no fear of losing their seat; it’s the party name, not voting record, that gets them elected. This has all but eliminated competition, even among the Republican party. Since the 1990s, Georgia has experienced a stark shift to Republican partisanship. Moderate Republican voices have been drowned out by those to the right of them.
You might ask, “Isn’t Georgia solidly rural, white, and Republican? Aren’t these districts representative?” Well, Georgia’s demographics are quickly and dramatically changing. It is unlikely that the white vote will make up 50 percent of the overall count by the 2020 elections. Minorities and cities tend to favor Democratic candidates. Republicans in Georgia might not want an independent commission because they enjoy the overwhelming power they are currently experiencing. Unfortunately for them, it won’t last. If you are a Republican, eventual Democratic control of the state legislature and retaliatory gerrymandering against future Republican candidates should prompt you to support an independent commission.
How does gerrymandering affect Athens, Georgia?
The following images depict the shapes of the three state House districts representing Athens (117, 118 and 119), followed by a diagram showing how the city of Athens has been carved up to fill parts of each district.
Why should we consider an independent commission?
Literacy tests and poll taxes may be long gone, but gerrymandering has continued to stifle the voices and voting power of minority communities. Sometimes constituents are packed together to create a situation where all the voting power of one race or group is concentrated into one area. This sounds promising in theory (a small group could combine their votes to win a district), but it actually reduces the total number of districts that group can win. Other times, legislators look to disperse one voting block among several districts, thus marginalizing their potential influence on elections. Look at Florida’s 5th District, where African-Americans, once lumped together, were reapportioned into neighboring districts. In doing so, Republicans diluted the power of these voters. It is, in effect, disenfranchisement.
Not only does gerrymandering reduce competition overall, but there are a host of other issues that all Georgians — Democrat, Republican, or independent — should be concerned about. For instance, gerrymandering allows politicians to cherry pick voters, eliminate incumbents they don’t like, protect incumbents they do like, dilute minority voters, split communities, and skew statewide representation. Look at Virginia after the 2000 elections. The Republican-controlled state legislature targeted a Democrat, Richard Cranwell, who had represented his district for over 29 years. They literally redrew the map to place his home into another district, thus forcing him to run against another member of his own party or retire. He chose the latter option. A similar situation happened to Athens’ own John Barrow and also to then-Senator Barack Obama in 2002.
The constitutionality of independent commissions has already been tested in court. Republicans in Arizona sued after the 2012 elections, upset that they were “cut out” of the redistricting process. The US Supreme Court proceeded to rule in favor of independent commissions.
With so few independent commissions, the research is still mixed and ongoing. However, even studies with mixed results still show us that independent commissions produce strong, well-financed challengers and reduce the likelihood of incumbents running unopposed. Independent commissions also tend to produce elected officials that are less partisan, meaning they favor their constituents over the party line. This is supported by other studies that show us bipartisan districts produce more moderate candidates, reduce extreme ideology at both ends of the political spectrum, and can reduce the Republican structural advantage in winning districts.
Georgia’s demographics are changing. If you believe in democracy, in fairness, and in American values, then you believe in truly adhering to the “one-person-one-vote” standard. Partisan politics have no business in deciding the power of your voice and the power of your vote. Some members of our community continue to face disenfranchisement to this day because members of our state legislature don’t want to hear from them. It is time, my fellow Georgians, to stand united and demand that we all have a say in our elections. Remove partisan gerrymandering from our legislature. Support Senate Resolution 6 and House Resolution 3. Support an independent commission!
February 15, 2017