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Ask Auntie Pinko

February 16, 2006
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I am a new member to this web site. I have just read two of your responses to questions with considerable relief. Thank you for your well written and well considered, accurate responses.

My question is: What is "gerrymandering"? I know that somehow Tom DeLay was instrumental in changing the Congressional districts in Texas to obtain a greater number of Republican electoral votes, or a greater number of Republican congressional seats. But how does this work?

Thank you for your response,

James,
Earlville, NY


Dear James,

Auntie is going to have to get out my drawing tools to help answer this one!

Let's start with a small fictional state called "Roundham." Because Roundham's state population is 2,300,000, it has three of America's 435 Congressional seats apportioned to it, based on the most recent census (which determined the average Congressional district population at about 647,000.) That's not a change for Roundham, which has sent two Democrats and one Republican to the House of Representatives since the early 20th Century. Here's a "map" of Roundham, showing its nine counties, and its pre-Census Congressional District boundaries:

District 1 includes the northern, industrialized suburbs of Roundham's capital city, Roundberg, and the heavily Latino communities in H County. It's always been Democratic, but the state's Republican Party is trying to woo those Latino voters in H County.

District 2 includes the heavily-Democratic city of Roundberg itself, with its large minority population of African-Americans, as well as the northeast inner-ring suburbs which are mixed Democratic and Republican, and the very Republican I County.

District 3 includes some of the liberal small cities in eastern C County, but is mostly rural and heavily conservative. It has been reliably Republican for decades.

Altogether, Roundham has about 400,000 registered Democrats, about 300,000 registered Republicans, and the rest of its million or so registered voters selected "no Party affiliation" on their registration forms.

A particularly lackluster Democratic candidate and some nasty scandals resulted in a Republican victory in Roundham's last Gubernatorial election before the census, and a narrow Republican majority in the state Legislature. The governor appointed Republican political strategists to the commission designated to reapportion the state's Congressional Districts, and they came up with a map that looks like this:

And now suddenly, although the actual balance of registered Democrats and Republicans hasn't changed, Roundham is sending two Republicans and one Democrat to Congress. To accomplish this, the reapportionment task force had to split up virtually every county except B and I (traditionally reliable Republican voting blocks) each of which serves as the anchor for strangely-shaped districts that split up some townships and even precincts to maximize the impact of Republican voters. Democrats have either been herded into the newly-contorted District 2 ("packing") or carefully split up between Districts 1 and 3 without disturbing the Republican dominance of those two Districts ("diluting").

That's gerrymandering. The term comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 created a district boundary that looked like the outline of a salamander.

Gerrymandering is a perennial phenomenon in American politics, and to some extent it is tolerated and even expected - a hangover of the old "spoils system" of electoral politics. Reformers have been trying to find ways to minimize it for centuries, and clever politicians and their lawyers have been finding ways to subvert the reform efforts for just as long.

What made Mr. Delay's venture into gerrymandering so outrageous, in many peoples' opinion, was how he went about it. Normally the electorate of a state will tolerate a certain amount of gerrymandering as part of the normal reapportionment process, conducted under moderate public scrutiny during the election cycle after a decennial census. And as long as it isn't too obviously motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice or other clearly discriminatory criteria, or too blatantly manipulative, a certain amount of tweaking by the party in power is expected, if still reprehensible.

Mr. Delay, however, went outside of this standard procedure. After his state had already completed its normal post-census reapportionment, squeezing in as much gerrymandering as its Republican state leadership thought judicious, Mr. Delay still wasn't satisfied. After the process was over and the results were already accepted by the Legislature, he worked with Republicans in the legislature to create a whole new apportionment map that was both blatantly manipulative, and created outside the normal reapportionment process. It couldn't have been a more obvious attempt to grab and cement party advantage if he'd installed a huge neon sign spelling out "GERRYMANDER!"

You can find more information about gerrymandering on the Internet. There's some fascinating history there, and some sleazy maneuvering by both parties that will make your hair stand on end. And unless we pass a Constitutional amendment specifying uniform and fair apportionment criteria and procedures across all States, it will continue to be an issue in many states.

Enjoy your research, James, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!


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