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Gerrymandering for America

If you wanted to have a very successful auto dealership, the very best way, if you could accomplish this goal, would be to disallow any competitive dealership within 100 miles of your dealership. And, if you did this statewide, you would really be successful.

Gerrymandering works much the same way. In gerrymandering, you lock the opposing party into weirdly shaped voting districts that minimize the ability of the voters to elect your opponent. If you are really good at this, you use computer modeling, as Wisconsin did in 2012, to shape the electoral districts and then you win a supermajority in the state representative election, while losing the popular vote. Smart Republicans did this so well, they remain largely dominant in Wisconsin even though in 2014 and 2016 their margin of victory was statistically invisible.

Many would argue that this, gerrymandering, is just a part of Americana, just a cute, lovable, historical way of making the trains run on time. It is not. It is actually a way to cheat voters out of their votes by failing to provide constitutional equal protection and free expression.

Gerrymandering earned its name when, in Massachusetts in 1818, then Gov. Elbridge Gerry created voting districts favorable to republicans in Boston, creating one district that on a map look remarkably like a salamander. It was then the combination of the governor’s name and the amphibian that has come to identify the practice of politicians cheating voters out of the impact of their vote.

Then, for a period, many states simply appointed all their representatives at large by the party in power. The Apportionment Act of 1842 ended that practice by requiring districts be created holding the approximate population then required to qualify for representation. Additionally, the act required that an individual be identified specifically within each district. The idea was to have a person who lived within the people represented, an altogether good concept.

But humans are tricky and can find the most delightful ways to circumvent almost any logical solution to a problem. An example came about when, in 1889, a Republican congress decided to accept the Dakota Territories into the union, not as one state, but as two states, for the sole reason of gaining double the electoral votes.

Each state must be granted a minimum of three electoral votes regardless of population. So, even though the Dakotas had tiny populations in total, when divided into two they helped, and continue to help, Republicans gain electoral votes. It may not be pretty, probably skims the constitution, but it certainly was creative.

While these creative devices have been used to grant politicians the power to pick their voters, the Supreme Court has, more or less, preferred to find this all invisible. The count did enforce oversight of Southern voting rights after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, at least until it did not in 2013. In 1999, the court noted gerrymandered districts could be constructed in “legally partisan” ways.

And in its most egregious effort, in 2005, the court ruled the amazing re-re districting of Texas was legal. After the 2000 census, Republicans in Texas re-districted, as happens once every ten years. But, in 2003, Texas republicans re-districted a second time, after figuring out how to slice up 10 Democratic districts into more Republican-type districts. The outcome? To this day, Republican majorities.

This year, the Supreme Court will rule on Gill vs. Whitford, the Wisconsin case where Republicans used computer modeling to create a state supermajority for themselves even if they lost the popular vote. Sort of a, “voters be damned,” approach. Let’s hope the court finds its conscience and strikes down extreme gerrymandering once and for all.


Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.