Every year I worry about how to creatively teach redistricting and gerrymandering to my seniors at Santa Clara High School. It can boring and too academic but this year was different. “Judith” asked why politicians pick the voters instead of the other way around. “Madison” answered with one word: Gerrymandering. As their teacher, I was excited to roll up my sleeves and spend the next hour discussing gerrymandering!
Gerrymandering is the process of giving one political party an electoral advantage over another. The political party in power has the power to gerrymander districts by redrawing them every 10 years after the Census is conducted. In Texas, Republicans gain an advantage over Democrats because they are in controlling party in power. In Illinois, the opposite is true as Democrats control the statehouse in Springfield. With such power, the controlling party has undue influence on policy issue like the state budget, legislation, and the power to redraw districts in the future.
Judith then asked how did this start and where did the name gerrymandering originate? It all goes back to Democratic-Republican (yes that was a political party at one time) Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Gerry supported and signed a bill to allow redistricting in his state after the 1810 Census. His goal was to give his party more state Senate seats for the 1812 election. The result was an irregular shaped district that looked like a salamander that was highlighted by the Boston Gazette. In that article, the Gazette coined the phrase Gerrymandering and it stuck ever since.
The two most common ways to gerrymander a district is to pack or crack it, in both ways the results are clear: the districts created as safe districts for the political party in power, creating more ideological elected officials, resulting in more gridlock at the congressional and state level, leading to a lack of confidence by the voters in their politicians.
Case in point: in 2014 Congress has the lowest approval rating in the history of polling 9% (a rate lower that the approval rating of Lucifer) yet over 94% of incumbents were re-elected to their House seats.
In 2016, the Cook Report asserted that of the 435 House seats, only 21 of them (just 5%) were competitive seats. Even in purple, battleground Ohio, only ONE of the 16 House seats in the Buckeye state was a tossup: ONE! In 1994, there were 63 competitive House seats and in 1984, there were over 100 of them, now only 20! In Alabama, three of the seven House districts did not even have a Democratic opponent challenge the Republican incumbent due to gerrymandering. In short, gerrymandering allows the politicians to pick the voters instead of the other way around resulting in safe districts for ideological incumbents who have no desire to work across the party aisles to pass legislation.
“When all you have to do is worry about winning the Democratic or the Republican primary, you move way too far left or too far right because you’re always worried about somebody primarying you,” Kent Syler said. “You’re not worried about the general election.” Syler knows a lot about the ways of Washington. He worked for more than two decades as the chief of staff to then-congressman Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who left office five years ago. At the time, Gordon’s district had a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans. “We didn’t worry about the primary,” Syler said. “We worried about making sure we had a moderate record because we didn’t want to get too far out of step with the equally divided district we had.”
Madison then blurted out can anything be done about this. I said yes! Look to states as the laboratories of democracy. In 2008, voters in California passed the Voters First Act that created a 14-member commission made of 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans and 4 independent voters, NOT, politicians to redraw the 120 state legislative districts. Voters than passed the commission to also redraw the 53 congressional districts. The results are in: the districts are no longer irregular shaped, rather they are contiguous and compacted, they have created more competitive districts, and in some districts elected more moderate candidates, in some instances even toppling incumbents. In short, gerrymandering has ended in the Golden State. Hopefully, other states will follow the California model in the future. And, most exciting for good governance folks, the Supreme Court has heard a case coming from Wisconsin to the undemocratic practice of gerrymandering. As Judith commented, let us hope to courts do the right thing and end gerrymandering. Yes, Madison agreed, lets’ hope the unelected branch of our federal government, restores the constitutional right of voters picking the politicians instead of the politicians picking the voters!
Dominic J. Caserta, a teacher at Santa Clara High school and the city’s vice-mayor, is running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in District 4, which includes Santa Clara. He wrote this article for the Santa Clara Weekly.