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Gerrymandering in the United States: Crimes Against Geography?

Submitted by on November 8, 2014 – 1:51 pm 7 Comments |  
(Note: The next several GeoCurrents posts will examine the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections)

Goofy Kicking Donald DuckIn my large lecture course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events, I always begin by showing an enigmatic or amusing map with the labels removed. I then ask the class what it represents. Recent examples include a map of the range of fruit bats (for a lecture on Ebola) and cartogram of Brazil 2010 election (for a lecture on Brazil’s 2014 election). Next Tuesday’s lecture will begin with the image posted to the left. The answer this time is obvious, provided in the form of Pennsylvania 7th Congressional Districta one-question quiz: “d. Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District.” The other possible answers derive from a contest run by the Washington Post to name the oddly shaped districts. The winner was “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” while the other choices on my quiz were among the contest’s “honorable mentions.”

Pennsylvania’s 7th is by no means the only severely gerrymandered congressional district in the United States. A fascinating Wonkblog post by Christopher Ingraham from May 15, 2014 aptly describes a number of these districts as “crimes against geography.” Ingraham nicely Gerrymandered Districtsexplains the rationale and mechanics of the process. As he notes:

Contrary to one popular misconception about the practice, the point of gerrymandering isn’t to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it’s to give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably.

Ingraham also shows that a majority of the heavily gerrymandered districts were drawn by Republicans eager to enhance their own electoral advantages. But he also demonstrates that that process is encountered on both side of the political divide. As he goes on to write:

Maryland and North Carolina are home to some of the ugliest districts in the nation among states with at least three Congressional districts. In fact, North Carolina is home to three out of the top 10 most-gerrymandered districts in the country. Maryland is proof that gerrymandering isn’t just a Republican pastime, as the state’s Democrats redrew those boundaries in 2012. The standout in that state is the 3rd Congressional district, which is the nation’s second-most gerrymandered and home to Democratic congressman John Sarbanes.

Gerrymandering Index MapIngraham’s most significant contribution is his measuring and mapping of the extent of gerrymandering, a feat that has been previously performed (see here and here), but probably not quite so successfully. As his map shows, some states are far more gerrymandered than others. The least manipulated congressional districts are found in both Republican states (Indiana, Kansas) and Democratic ones (New Mexico), as well as in swing states (Iowa). As Ingraham further notes, “Gerrymandering is easier to get away with in more densely-populated areas,” most of which lean in the direction of the Democratic Party. (States depicted in gray have only one congressional district, and hence cannot be gerrymandered.)

Only a few of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts stand out on the map of the 2014 midterm election. They are difficult to see in part because the map is so dominated by red, reflecting in part Republican success in recent elections and in part the pronounced clustering of Democratic US 2014 House Votevoters in densely populated urban and inner suburban areas. But in North Carolina, which has North Carolina Gerrymanderingrecently become a crucial “purple” state hotly contested by the two major parties, the effects of gerrymandering are clearly evident. To illustrate this, I have juxtaposed a map of North Carolina’s vote in the 2012 Presidential Election organized by congressional districts with a map based on the same data but organized by counties. The difference is striking.

North_Carolina_US_Congressional_District_12_(since_2013).tifIngraham contends that North Carolina’s 12 Congressional District is the country’s most severely gerrymandered. Yet it is evidently not as aberrant in shape as it once was. As noted in the Wikipedia:

It was drawn in 1992 as one of two black majority (minority-majority) districts, designed to give blacks (who comprised 22% of the state’s population at the time) the chance to elect a representative of their choice. In its original configuration, it was a 64 percent black-majority district stretching from Gastonia to Durham. It was very long and so thin at some points that it was no wider than a highway lane, as it followed Interstate 85 almost exactly.

It was criticized as a racially gerrymandered district. For instance, the Wall Street Journal called the district “political pornography.” The United States Supreme Court ruled in Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993) that a racial gerrymander may, in some circumstances, violate the Equal Protection Clause. The state legislature had defended the two districts as based on demographics, with the 12th representing the interior Piedmont area and the 1st the Coastal Plain. Subsequently, the district was redrawn several times and was adjudicated in the Supreme Court on two additional occasions. The version created after the 2000 census was approved by the US Supreme Court in Hunt v. Cromartie. The current version dates from the 2010 census; like the 2003-2013 version, it has a small plurality of whites, though blacks make up a large majority of registered voters. In all of its configurations, it has been a Democratic stronghold dominated by black voters in Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad.

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  • … is that the same John Sarbanes as in the Sarbanes Oxley Act? If so, then I wonder if they had their gerrymandering documemted and audited as diligently as they make us mere mortals do!

  • Harvey

    as in “quarantining” voters of the other party to get them out of your voting way? in any event, shameful

  • barzai

    First of all, let me be clear (as one might say): I have no love for the practice of gerrymandering. That being said, the rise of gerrymandering to disproportionate heights has been facilitated by two ongoing trends.

    One is the increased availability of demographic data down to the block level. As far back as 1982, this had a very clear effect: in that year, in the first elections that used the new district lines resulting from the 1980 census and apportionment, let us recall that the Republicans lost 18 seats and that these losses were widely trumpeted as evidence of the unpopularity of Reagan’s policies and of the man himself.

    Less widely heralded was that fully half of those losses–9 of 18–were in California, and resulted from a gerrymandered map drawn by the then-majority whip, Tony Coelho (a Californian himself), who pioneered the use of very finely-grained census data to optimize the California lines.

    However, the real culprit in all this is–paradoxically–the Supreme Court’s own electoral-district jurisprudence. In a long line of cases starting back in the 1960s–starting with Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims–the Supreme Court has ruled that legislative districts must be apportioned on an equal-population basis.

    This jurisprudence has grown so strict that–infamously–a few years ago, a redistricting plan for the Pennsylvania House of Delegates was rejected by the Supreme Court because the population difference between the most and least populous districts was…15.

    Not 15,000. Not 1500. 15.

    Now, I think it safe to say that it would be well-nigh impossible to do better, but back to the drawing board they went.

    What is my point here? A subtle one that I had not reflected on until I read it in an essay, I believe by Michael Barone: the more weight you put on equal population as the dominant or even sole criterion of fitness, the more games the line-drawers can play with, well, pretty much everything else.

    Finally, to comment on the infamous NC-12 district (of which its original holder famously observed that he could hit two-thirds of his constituents by driving down a particular highway with the doors on his car open): this was the product of a quixotic and ultimately self-destructive push by the civil-rights community in favor of so-called “majority-minority districts.”

    The argument had been–not entirely wrongly–that there would never be any blacks elected in Southern states so long as the legislatures were allowed to dilute their voting power by dividing them up among many districts. In consequence, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department began challenging reapportionment plans written pursuant to the 1990 census that did not make provision for such districts. Incidentally, the sensibility was not limited to the South: New York had its initial Congressional reapportionment plan rejected for lack of a majority-Hispanic district in Brooklyn.

    However, the unintended consequence of this was to concentrate the (heavily Democratic) black electorate in a small number of districts, making all the surrounding districts whiter and more Republican. This in turn made many heretofore safe Democratic seats marginal, and marginal ones lean Republican: this is considered a major exacerbating factor in the 54-seat swing observed in the 1994 midterm elections, the first to be conducted under this dispensation.

    As a result, blacks doubled their representation in Congress: the Democrats as a whole lost a quarter of their caucus…and furthermore these losses were concentrated among the more moderate or even conservative members. Thus the new, smaller Democratic caucus was much more liberal than had been its predecessors: one may observe that this is at least part of the reason for the breakdown of collaboration across party lines (the Republicans, of course, suffered much the same fate in 2006, albeit for different reasons).

    • ThomBurr

      Excellent write up. +1. I was going to try to explain some of the things you wrote of, but here you are, and you’ve done a better job than I ever could.

      • barzai

        Thanks! 🙂

    • Many thanks for the detailed and insightful comments. There is more content here than in the post itself!

      • barzai

        My pleasure, brother Martin! 🙂