In 1789, two future presidents faced off for the honor of representing Virginia's Fifth Congressional District in the first-ever United States Congress. Federalist James Madison ran against pronounced anti-federalist James Monroe in what would become one of the more interesting congressional elections in our admittedly short history. According to some scholars, Patrick Henry attempted to rig the election by designing a contorted district that would ensure Madison's defeat. Although Madison ultimately won the election, many point to this as the very first example of political redistricting in the United States.
Whether or not Patrick Henry did in fact redistrict in Monroe's favor remains a point of contention among historians, but such manipulation has since become widespread. Now called gerrymandering (after the Boston Gazette deemed one of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry's new districts salamander-shaped in 1810), the practice is disturbingly common on both sides of the aisle and has had consistently unsettling implications for democratic legitimacy. In order for elections to accurately reflect the will of the people, redistricting must become a fair and nonpartisan process in all 50 states.
Today, districts gerrymandered based on party affiliation, race, and other influential criteria have resulted in congressional district maps that would put Jackson Pollock to shame. Districts are required to be reapportioned once each decade to ensure approximate population equality, and in many states the majority party takes advantage of this to split opposition voters—or, since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, minority groups—across district lines. Over time, repeated redrawing has led to disproportionate representation of various states' majority parties in Congress—"representation" which in fact does not properly represent the wishes of their citizens.
Several states in particular stand out as blatant examples of the extent to which redistricting has been abused. In a recent study, geospatial software firm Azavea found that two of Maryland's eight districts rank in the top 10 least compact (read: most absurdly distorted) in the nation. The grand prize, however, goes to North Carolina's 12th district, which is 120 miles long but only 20 miles wide at its widest point. It contains small sections of both Charlotte and Greensboro and follows Interstate 85 in such a way that traveling between the two cities requires crossing in and out of the district four times.
Such districts, sadly, are not uncommon. Although some states happen to be worse offenders than others, the problem is spread out fairly evenly across the country in red and blue states alike. Of the top eight states with the lowest district compactness scores, four are majority Democratic and four Republican. Nearly all states whose district reapportionments are controlled by the majority party exhibit gerrymandering to some degree. Even states that rank lower on the “least compact” list, such as Minnesota and New York, contain some interestingly gerrymandered districts.
But the ubiquity of gerrymandering as a practice does not in any way make it more acceptable: At its core, it is effectively a form of disenfranchisement. Thousands if not millions of voters are packed into strategic districts in such a way that in each election cycle their votes are rendered obsolete. Among its many other undemocratic effects, gerrymandering gives a decisive advantage to incumbents and increases partisan polarity: Representatives who do not have to worry about reelection are far less motivated to negotiate or work with the opposition to enact constructive legislation.
Many other countries (such as the U.K., Australia, and the Netherlands) have taken steps to eliminate gerrymandering, but the rigidity of the two-party system in the United States has long hindered efforts to do so here. However, some states have begun to work toward a fair solution to the reapportionment problem. Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, and Washington have all formed non-partisan redistricting committees in an attempt to reduce the partisan bickering and unfairness.
There exist several alternative solutions to the gerrymandering problem, all of which should be seriously considered if our elections are to remain fair and uphold our democratic ideals. Courts have long criticized the constitutionality and fairness of gerrymandering but have neglected to act on their criticisms, at least in part out of deference to states’ rights to draw their own district lines. Placing that ability in the hands of the courts instead could be one way to mitigate the unfairness of majority-controlled reapportionment.
Perhaps more practically, nonpartisan reapportionment committees could be established in all 50 states, with a judicial procedure in place for partisan gerrymandering. A ballot measure to form a nonpartisan committee failed in Ohio last November, but with stronger campaigning and increased awareness such measures could be brought to the table in many more states. Such nonpartisan commissions have been successful abroad: For instance, redistricting in the U.K. is handled by the Boundary Commission.
For over 200 years, gerrymandering has played a persistent role in determining representation. Politicians and their parties over the centuries have used it to cling to power and undermine the democratic process we hold so dear. It is critical that we as citizens and voters take matters back into our own hands, eliminate gerrymandering once and for all, and reassert control over those who ostensibly represent us.
Christina M. Teodorescu ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall.