What is gerrymandering?
Fair elections are at the heart of American democracy, but many people argue that politicians have been undermining this American ideal through the practice of what is called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has been described as the process of politicians picking their voters instead of the voters picking their politicians. In order to really understand this concept, you need to know how voting districts work.
Essentially states are split into different voting districts. For example, there are congressional voting districts-- where voters from each district elect a person to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. These voting districts are based on population size, and every 10 years after the US census, voting districts are redrawn to make sure that each district has the same number of people. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair if one district has twice as many people as all the other districts, but still only gets one representative in the House. There are lots of different ways a state can be divided up into districts, so how do you decide where to draw the district lines?
In the case of gerrymandering, politicians from the party in power use census and voting data to make predictions about how people are likely to vote, and they draw districts in a way that ensures their political party will win the most voting districts overall. This allows political parties to win more districts even if they have fewer overall votes. For example, gerrymandering is probably the reason why in the 2016 election in North Carolina, democrats won 47% of the vote, but only ended up with 23% of the seats. Both republicans and democrats do it, and who draws the lines depends on which party is in power.
For the most part, gerrymandering for political purposes is allowed, but racial gerrymandering is illegal. According to the Voting Rights Act, you can’t draw districts in a way that disadvantages minority racial groups. But many people, from both political parties feel that gerrymandering undermines the democratic process and they want to find ways to stop it. Some favor allowing computers to take over the redistricting-- by programming algorithms to prioritize size and neat and tidy district shapes. Some states, like California have independent bipartisan commissions in charge of redistricting. Since these commissions are bipartisan, they don’t have an incentive to gerrymander.
LESSON PLAN: Redistricting: How the Maps of Power Are Drawn (The Lowdown/KQED)