The Pathos of Politics (88-3) Gerrymandering


The US is plagued by the only democratic vice more troubling than the tyranny of the majority: tyranny of the minority. The senate is set up this way. In the lower house, this owes to gerrymandering: creating geographically arbitrary districts that concentrate voter affiliation. Gerrymandering engenders reelection and practically locks a party into power.

(Gerrymandering is universal in the United States. All states have undemocratic discrepancies from gerrymandering. Representative democracy in the US is a joke that few voters are in on, at least enough to revolt rather than just being revolted.)

If you’ve tilted the playing field in the electoral system that it doesn’t allow you to boot parties out of power, then you’ve got a real problem. ~ Francis Fukuyama

Republicans, who make no bones about not holding democratic ideals, have been relentless gerrymanderers. They have repeatedly been found by the lower courts to illicitly delimit voting districts. In North Carolina in 2018, Republicans got 50.4% of the votes (versus 48.3% for Democrats) yet took 10 of the 13 Congressional seats. In the 2012 Wisconsin election, Republicans won 60% of the state legislature seats with only 48.6% of the vote. In Ohio in 2016, Republicans captured 75% of the seats for the federal lower house after winning 58% of the votes. Likewise in Utah, where 100% of lower house seats went to Republicans for garnering 70% of the votes.

The Republican majority in the supreme court defends the evisceration of American democracy via gerrymandering. Republican Supreme Court Justice John Roberts Jr. called the effort to reduce gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook”: an idiotic comment in that the courts’ business is sociological. In 2018, Republican SCOTUS justices okayed racial discrimination in establishing voting districts.

The ability of minority voters in Texas to meaningfully exercise their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will. ~ SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in dissent in Abbott v. Perez (2018), joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan

In 2019, the Republican majority controlling SCOTUS ruled that federal courts could offer no remedy to elections rigged for Republicans.

Partisan gerrymanders deprive citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the right to choose their political representatives. Part of the court’s role is to defend the foundations of democratic governance. None is more important than free and fair elections. This court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation. ~ SCOTUS Justice Elena Kagan, in dissent in Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor

Via gerrymandering, the United States runs an unrepresentative pseudo-democracy. Democrats win their congressional seats with big majorities in fewer districts, while Republicans prevail by narrower margins in a larger number of districts. This is perhaps fitting, in that the political game is rigged in same way as the economic system: for the rich elite and against commoners.

(In 2016, Democrats who beat Republicans did so at an average 67.4%, whereas Republicans defeated Democrats by an average 63.8%. In 2014, Republicans converted a 51% share of the votes into 55% of the seats. In 2012, Republicans won 54% of the house seats despite getting fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. In the senate, Republicans hold 51% of the seats via only 46% of the vote.)

Gerrymandering was built into the American electoral system by the founding fathers, who wanted power to be hard to concentrate. The first 2 presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both specifically warned that a 2-party system would be anathema to the government model they were trying to establish. The result has been ironic: a constitution designed to work with many weak factions instead engendered the concentration of power into a 2-party system which has fended off challenges from nascent splinter movements.

For the drafters of the constitution, proportional representation was a conundrum in a country where slaves were a majority in many states. The arithmetic of compromise required the creation of an electoral college for the presidency, as it divorced the power of a state’s votes from the number of people actually casting them.

The founders required an absolute majority in the college to elect a president: if no candidate received over 50% of electoral votes, the choice fell to the House of Representatives. This incentivized the formation of nationwide parties whose candidates could win the necessary majority, thus fostering a 2-party system.

The constitution does not specify how states must allocate their electors. Conceivably, they could split their votes proportionately. But, to maximize their influence over the final result, all but 2 states decided to cast their electoral power on a winner-takes-all basis. In the interest of concentrating their power, states chose undemocratic election. As a result, smaller parties could not amass any electoral votes at all, thereby locking in a 2-party model.

Geographic distribution distorts voting clout. As of the 2010 census, per resident, the 5 most rural states wielded 50% more electoral votes, and 3 times as many senators, as the 5 most urban states.

The root of the problem stems from favoring geographic distribution over proportional representation, with a constitution politically arranged for an agrarian nation which has become predominantly urban.

As the party of the cities, Democrats find themselves at a disadvantage in any geographically based winner-takes-all electoral system, where getting 99% of the vote is no better than 51%. Gerrymandering adds to the disadvantage.

Republicans run more state governments than Democrats do, in part because of geopolitical distribution and concentration. This gives Republicans more opportunities to game the system, which they gleefully have. In the 2012 redistricting cycle, Republicans delineated the boundaries of 48% of US lower house districts, while Democrats drew just 10%.

Extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem in our democracy. ~ SCOTUS Justice Bret Kavanaugh

Gerrymandering is nothing new. The founders’ ill-conceived rigging was torn asunder within a very few decades. Gerrymandering got its name in 1812.


Gerrymandering would not matter so much if the 2 parties were broad churches, where party unity counted for less than cross-party consensus on issues. That was how it was for much of American history, thanks to racism.

In the early 19th century, both Democrats and Whigs were divided by factions favoring slavery or its abolition. This made bipartisan alliance easier.

After the Civil War, white southerners blamed Lincoln’s Republicans for laying waste to their homeland and refused to vote for that party over the subsequent century. That filled the Democratic congressional delegation with segregationist and conservative southerners, producing 2 parties with considerable ideological overlap. In the mid-20th century, the voting records of 1/3rd of federal legislators were closer to the political center than they were the platforms of their parties.

Then, in the 1960s, responsive to the outcry of oppressed urban blacks, Democrats embraced racial equality. Over the generation which followed, Republicans swept through the south, its success succored by racism.

The realigned parties become more ideologically distinct, both in social policies and the underlying economic driver: corporate power. The voting record of the most liberal Republican is now well to the right of the most conservative Democrat. The number of moderates in Congress can now be counted on one hand.

With a slim party power margin in the legislature, the result has been political gridlock. Congress passed ~40% fewer laws per session in the 2 decades since 1994 than it did in the 2 decades before. The baleful equilibrium is punctuated by spurts of partisan law-making.

The only restraint has been discord within a party. Since 2010, the leaders of the party in power have generally refused to bring legislation to the floor that does not command a majority of their own party.

Intra-party factionalism curbs the excesses of inter-party factionalism. ~ American political scientist William Connelly Jr.