Have Americans Gerrymandered Ourselves?

On Tuesday, I attended the “Pancakes and Politics” breakfast hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. It was a lively and informative panel. One exchange that really struck me was a brief discussion of redistricting.

Everyone on the panel–Republican, Democrat and Statehouse reporter Ed Feigenbaum (who was officially neither)–agreed that noncompetitive elections are bad for democracy, that they pull parties to the extremes, encourage lazy legislators and reduce electoral participation.

The question was, what can be done about it?

The Democrat on the panel endorsed nonpartisan redistricting; the Republican on the panel (I should be better about names!) disagreed. He pointed out that Americans have been “sorting” ourselves into Red and Blue enclaves–voting with our feet to live in places where our neighbors agree with us about values and priorities. True enough–anyone who’s read Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort would recognize the accuracy of his observation.

His second argument against nonpartisan redistricting was less persuasive. Basically, he pooh-poohed the notion that we can really take partisan politics out of the process. The success of nonpartisan processes in Iowa and elsewhere suggest otherwise.

The truth–as is so often the case–is likely somewhere in the middle: eliminating partisan gamesmanship and gerrymandering will not solve the problem of underrepresentation of people living in overwhelmingly blue cities in red and purple states. But it would be measurably fairer than the current system, in which representatives choose their voters rather than the other way around, and that fairness would ameliorate at least some of the cynicism and apathy that depresses voter turnout. And it would increase the numbers of competitive districts–perhaps not as much as advocates hope, but certainly more than the panelist conceded.

Common Cause, which has made redistricting reform a high priority, has announced a contest that highlights one of the reasons that challenges to highly gerrymandered districts have failed: the Supreme Court has consistently declined to get involved unless the districts can be shown to have been drawn to disenfranchise minorities. The Court has said that partisan districts (districts drawn to unfairly benefit a political party) are “justiciable”–that is, that such challenges will be heard by the courts–but they have routinely declined to overturn political decision-making unless racially discriminatory motives can be demonstrated.

Common Cause has invited lawyers and political scientists to propose a new definition of partisan gerrymandering that might allow citizens to win such challenges, promising money prizes, publication of the winning paper and a trip to Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting to see what that contest produces.

Hope springs eternal…..


  1. I have never understood why or how redistricting is done – or allowed legally; a district is a district made up of area and population. In this transient society today, population is always changing, the area (district) remains the same. I know next to nothing about my neighbor’s political affiliations other than a very few yard signs at election time. I don’t care what their politics are and it is actually none of my business; WHO my representatives are is important to me. Until recently their representation, not their party, was of importance. This is another area where I am forced to vote straight Democratic ticket for self-defense. I will not move if Mary Moriarty-Adams or Andre Carson are Gerrymandered out of my district or I am Gerrymandered out of their’s. How and why is this legal? This is a form of voter rights control which SCOTUS limited at the federal level. Fortunately state districts cannot be changed and if I remember correctly, Unigov was put into effect here primarily due to the disagreements regarding Indianapolis changing city limits vs. Marion County limits which had different public safety protection, laws and ordinances. Obviously, this is still in limbo regarding public safety controls which Ballard took over because he was once in the Marines and knows everything of importance about public safety. And hasn’t that worked out well? Redistricting/Gerrymandering needs to be stopped; areas of representation (districts) need to be set in place and the arguments and political confusion (deliberate?) stopped. This is probably why so many registered voters do not bother to vote; keeping track of whose district we live in changes due to politicians whims and who has the most money backing them.

  2. Actually, the Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement was that redistricting disputes are not justiciable. And if that’s not bad enough, it has taken a case this Term that could result in the type of independent redistricting commissions Common Cause advocates for being put out of business. I’ve said it before–the 5 radicals on the Supreme Court may be the second greatest threat to our democracy, the first being voter ignorance and apathy.

  3. Redistricting … has many similarities
    “Stacking the Deck”
    “Padding a Resume”
    “Getting an Edge”
    etc, etc …

    Which ever way you look at it, it’s manipulating the system in one’s own favor.

  4. I absolutely agree with the Republican that redistricting commissions often don’t take the politics out of the process. You mentioned Iowa, but take a look at California for how it hasn’t worked.

    It’s similar to the “merit” system of selecting judges. Has Indiana’s adoption of the Missouri Plan’s merit selection process take politics out of the selection of Court of Appeals and Supreme Court judges? Absolutely not. I’ve talked to people on the Judicial Commission. The fact is they lobby and get lobbied and cut smoke-filled backroom (without the smoke) deals, the sort of politics that reformers have long decried. I remember being at a seminar in which an attorney for a former Governor said the way his/her governor handled it was he would call to Commission members and dictate who he wanted on the list, they would put that person on the list, and the Governor would appoint that person as judge.]

    Having said that, I’m not sold on the electoral system for selecting judges any more than I’m sold on partisan redistricting. It’s just the alternatives that are proposed simply shuffle politics off to the backroom where deals can be cut by insiders.

  5. It’s difficult to find truly NON-partisan appointees, and non-partisans would have to gain the favor of partisans to gain appointment to a non-partisan commission. The process might well be behind closed doors though the the current process is mostly behind closed doors too.

    Politicians fiercely guard their right to draw district boundaries that benefit themselves. I’ve never seen the weird shapes of new districts become an election issue in campaigns of legislators who drew the maps, but maybe they should.

  6. My precinct -SW corner of Marion – is in the House District with all of Kokomo – 26 miles away. My precinct is verrry reliably Republican as are the intervening precincts all the way to Kokomo. the result: a safe Republican seat & a State Representative who does not know, or care, about us. We are merely his reliable Grant County GOP areas.

  7. Might using established COUNTY lines be a start?
    Now, I live in Marion Co but have a Carmel Rep
    I did not move but my representation did
    I want my Indy rep back

  8. Gerrymandering is a part of the problem, the other big elephant in the room is our corrupt Campaign Contribution System.

  9. Did the Republican on the panel really claim that we move to neighborhoods that contain a majority of our party mates? Bizarre!

    How do we know that? Was I supposed to interview my perspective neighbors before buying?

  10. Pete,

    what he was saying is that similar economics engender like politics. And it does. Hitting a multimillion dollar lottery would change my politics, I know. (I’d probably fund a free socialist Daily to put the Star, along with Gannett, out of business!)

  11. The problem is that there is little doubt that the process of gerrymandering is effective. It allowed the GOP to maintain hold of the House even though out poled by some 1.4 million votes. Yet, demographics demand dictate it doomed to ultimate failure. The day will come, and is near, when a concentrated ten will command a dispersed thousand. What happens when the thousand realize that? What’s funny is that we only have to move to another district for a very short period of time and the whole rotten system is defeated. We can relocate much easier than they can re-district. If kids could go through what they did during Freedom Summers, this would be a walk in the park.

  12. Earl, I suppose that, on the average, you are correct but, as a contrary example, our neighborhood in FL, where most condos are residence #2 or even 3, has about as many liberals as conservatives with the majority pretty middle of the road. When I became a Republican lo those many years ago, it was clearly the party of business. Now, not so much.

    I wonder if the conservative anchor that the GOP has had to adopt in order to maintain some relevence has many business people questioning whether continued allegiance is rational.

    I’ve never chosen to switch parties but I have certainly abandoned modern Republican candidates.

  13. Earl; you commented on an earlier blog that it is easy to relocate to another district for political reasons due to Gerrymandering. How do you reach the conclusion that this is a simple matter, economically feasible, or even an intelligent action to take. The Native Americans allowed white men to run them off their land and out of their homes; I refuse to allow politicians to push me to that – IF I could afford it. I will stand and fight; I will do this by contributing what I can afford to candidates of my choice, urging others to stand up for their rights along side me and to VOTE in every election. If there is a way to fight redistricting/Gerrymandering or by whatever name you want to call it, someone let me know and…I’m there! It is weakness and giving in to bought and paid for politicians that has brought us to where we are today…the weakness of the once strong Democratic party, it’s once formidable leaders and their constituents. When our civil and human rights are being curtailed and taken away from us by that group of five old men on SCOTUS, there is something wrong with this entire country. And when one man, Speaker of the House Boehner, has more power than the President of the United States, we need to be more aware of how much of this redistrictin/Gerrymandering is causing these problems at it’s very roots.

  14. I was referring to the 18 yr old kids. They can easily re-locate for six months to change the world.
    They went to Philadelphia MS for the summer to die.

  15. That is comparing apples and potatoes. Those protests were not about redistricting; they were fighting for equal rights for others in states where they had been prohibited due to race – not politics. Yes; it was politicians they were fighting but the issue wasn’t political just as same-sex marriage isn’t political but politicians are the problem, not marriage.

  16. I like Earl Kennedy’s observation. Two problems ahead for those relying on redistricting:
    1) We are beginning to see a move toward independent candidates because of the actions of both political parties
    2) I don’t live where my parents lived and my kids don’t live where I raised them. This is common. So redistricting is a short term answer because the population keeps moving.
    I once heard a school administer tell me that some parents told him that they moved into a certain area which had all new homes because they did not want to live in a “used house.”

    I believe a district should be defined by geographical boundaries. Otherwise, it is just a big joke.

  17. Earl – Jeff Greenfield once wrote that the most cost effective way to win the New Hampshire primary was to pay to move some number of your supporters there for a year. Dr. John R. Koza, most recently Chairman of National Popular Vote, long ago privately joked about how easy it would be for a small number of people to take over the state of Wyoming (and that was before it became the place for rich Hollywood sorts to buy a ranch).

    In General, while I support Common Cause’s efforts, one of the confounding factors is how districting is structured. With emphasis on maintaining community integrity and having minority-majority districts, we magnify any effects of self-sorting. It reflects an unpopular sentiment I had when I lived in San Diego and there was a push toward district election for the City Council. The effort was meant to ensure Latino representation in the city. While it was easy to see how this would create a minimal level of representation, what was not as obvious to most in the Latino community (and honestly not relevant then) was that this would also tend to set a maximum limit.

    If we really want to overcome the effects of political gerrymandering, we might want to blindly slice up communities by simple geography, even crossing county lines to ameliorate the self-sorting we see such as the 96th Street divide.

    Still, as you say, Sheila, hope springs eternal. Let’s see what good Common Cause can bring through their efforts.

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