The real crisis? Gerrymandering
October 10th, 2013
09:02 AM ET

The real crisis? Gerrymandering

By Daniel Gaynor, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Daniel Gaynor is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a partner at Sweat to Solutions, a non-profit consultancy. The views expressed are his own.

As the government shutdown has entered its second week, there are few signs that the gridlock will be resolved anytime soon. But while finger pointing continues and federal employees stay furloughed, the larger crisis remains unresolved: gerrymandering.

However you vote on election day, you would probably like to know that your vote at least counts. But for more Americans than ever, that’s less and less likely to be the case. Since the last shutdown, in 1995, states from North Carolina to Arizona have been carved up into biased voting districts, in a process called “gerrymandering.”

So what is it? Let’s jump back to 1812. The governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, signed into law a “redistricting” plan, one that carved his political opponents into voting districts where they would have less ability to win. And on a map, the new districts looked like a salamander. A local newspaper combined the words Gerry and salamander, and today we have “gerrymander.”

Governor Gerry successfully confined his opposition’s supporters into districts where they were either in the stark minority (diffusing their influence) – or where they were the overwhelming majority (consolidating their influence). Either way, it meant Gerry’s opponents had less sway over the election.

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The problem is that states still follow Gerry’s playbook today. Look at Texas, where a Republican-led majority redistricted in 2003, putting 10 Democratic Congressman in significantly more conservative districts. Five of them were voted out in the next election.

As a political strategy, it’s a smart move. But done on a national scale, gerrymandering has major ramifications for America. It leads to partisan, recalcitrant, and often more extreme voting blocs. And it’s why we have a government shutdown today. Here in Washington, a Tea Party faction of the Republicans – and to be clear, certainly not all Republicans – are so adamant about defunding a law (The Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare”) that they have stopped the government from approving spending.

Some contend that, once voters see all the negative results of a shutdown (like, no more “Panda Cam” at the National Zoo) they’ll vote out the representatives behind the shutdown in the next election. Yet Americans should have little reason to believe that. The Tea Partiers mostly come from heavily conservative districts, meaning they will have constant support at the polls. These districts, more often than not, come as a result of gerrymandering.

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Most gerrymandered Tea Party districts will continue to support their incumbent representatives, even if they are the driving force behind the shutdown. As Politico reported this week: “79 of the 236 House Republicans serving during the last shutdown resided in districts that Clinton won in 1992. Today, just 17 of the 232 House Republicans are in districts that Obama won in 2012.” In non-political speak: the voters are going to keep these guys around. (To be fair, many Democrats have super-safe districts. But the Democrats do not have a wing of their caucus willing to shut down the government over a law passed more than three years ago.)

What’s more, the shutdown is leading to dangerous results. For instance: The Air National Guard, who are responsible for air defense and firefighting missions, are not doing their scheduled training because of the shutdown. Do we really need to be risking the readiness of the people who are on the frontlines of saving people from deadly wildfires?

And let’s hope a major disease breakout doesn’t hit your town next week. After all, flu season is around the corner and school is back in session. But because of the shutdown, about 70 percent of the Center for Disease Control’s staff is locked out of the office, which hurts their ability to response to outbreaks of dangerous diseases.

It begs the question: how can we fix this mess? With Congress’ public approval rating hovering at just 10 percent, more pressure from citizens on the national level will not turn the Hill around. Rather, change needs to be made on the state and local level.

First, citizens should express serious concern to their local representatives over gerrymandering. The political ambitions of single elected officials are leading to districts that, over the long run, only increase partisanship. Take a look at some of the ugliest – including one called the “Hanging Claw” – here.

Second, states should allow independent, non-partisan commissions to draw data-driven, not party-oriented, voting districts that are representative of the state’s population. Iowa is the example to follow. It taps a non-partisan team to draw district maps for the Iowa state House and Senate, plus U.S. House districts, “without any political or election data, including the addresses of incumbents”. Using just population as its metric, it ensures that every district is as fair as possible.

And third, citizens should push for statewide constitutional changes that ban gerrymandering practices and loopholes. As one person told me this week, “The question on the Hill is: is this more of a two-year problem?” – meaning voters are blindly voting for incumbents every election cycle – “Or a ten-year problem?” that means the districts, which get realigned after every U.S. Census, are at fault.

“It’s likely the districts,” was the conclusion.

Back in elementary school, we learn that U.S. government is a system of checks and balances. The “check” on Congress is that voters can simply kick them out of office. But when districts turn voters into yes-men, a new mechanism for fairness needs to be created. In order to restart the government and kick-start Congress, stopping gerrymandering is undoubtedly the key first step we need to take.

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Topics: Politics • United States

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Sherry Garner

    You forget the fact that there are districts deliberately carved to make them majority minority (a contradiction in terms?). And these majority-minority districts are always, as far as I can tell, Democratic. So gerrymandering works both ways and would not be welcomed by either party.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • john smith

      America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
      In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
      During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
      In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
      Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

      October 11, 2013 at 12:45 am | Reply
      • ✠RZ✠

        Given all the existing animal species on this planet, none are more brutal and blood thirsty than humankind. Yet we are no physical match for the likes of lions, tigers, and bears just to name a few, nor comparatively speaking anywhere near the strength and ruggedness of a lowly ant. Clearly, it is our own minds and the experience, belief, and knowledge therein that must be reckoned with. Although greed and money have more recently received much notoriety, and rightfully so, historically and to this very day, it is both religion and education that can be held accountable for more atrocities, death, and bloodshed than is imaginable. And so therein lies the "root of all terror", and evil, and fear, and unimaginable devastation. And until these potential horrors are first dealt with accordingly and somehow made agreeable to all, there can be no peace amongst all the living on Earth. One can only wonder what difference might have come by dropping trillions of dollars in internet connections and iPads on other countries, rather than bombs and guns.

        October 11, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  2. Sherry Garner

    You forget the fact that there are districts deliberately carved to make them majority minority (a contradiction in terms?). And these majority-minority districts are always, as far as I can tell, Democratic. So gerrymandering works both ways andreform would not be welcomed by either party.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  3. Ryan

    Obama should step down – as he is not in control.

    October 10, 2013 at 11:09 am | Reply
  4. The Decline

    What is wrong with liberals these days???? Is everything about the Tea Party? Have they ever thought that maybe ppl outside the Tea Party hate the ACA and support shutting down the gov for a little while? We aren't imploding so clearly we don't need to be spending all this money. The debt ceiling is a joke anyway. Most developed nations don't even have one. And whats the point of a "ceiling" if we are going to raise it every fiscal year?????? Shouldn't we be trying to spend within our means? Thats what I have to do, so why doesnt the gov?????

    October 10, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  5. rightospeak

    My comments were too much for the CNN Thought Police and were removed because I stated the true facts and they want propaganda to continue and to keep people in the dark as to the real problems. The censorship is a symptom of a sick system.

    October 10, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Kinda makes ya wonder sometimes, don't it ? But it might have been a good thing that Elbridge didn't spell his last name with a "J". Goodness knows what initial notions could come form "Jerrymandering".

      October 10, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  6. Dude

    It would be nice to look at a map and instantly know who you congressmen was without having to trace the boundaries of a bizarre looking district.

    October 10, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  7. HeyHey

    Vote only counts if the NSA, FBI, IRS and the NSA don't suppress domestic political opposition Fareed. Anyway, Nate got his data, right? That's all that mattered.

    October 10, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  8. ✠RZ✠

    Clearly, some systems need to be put in the Smithsonian. And perhaps it's time to give proportional representation some very serious consideration. But despite what I have seen so far, the process of electing corporate directors seems simple enough whereby electoral power is more or less placed completely in the hands of the corporate owners (shareholders) and represented by their vested interest (number of shares owned). This of course cannot be done in the exact same manner for a country, and for a number of obvious reasons. However, I see no reason why we cannot develop an electoral process based on personal taxes paid, more or less like representing shares in a country, being proportional to our votes and the subsequent vested interest in an elected official. Such a process would obviously require some very careful planning and thoughtful insight, but as an end result it might at least provide a chance for government to better reflect the interests of all those citizens who personally and directly finance our country every year. Please, do not jump to any immediate conclusions because this would be a bit more complicated than any one of us can immediately comprehend. Just think about it first, and from many varying perspectives. Thank you.

    October 10, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • Dave the Sensible

      I do NOT want the Government to reflect the interests of the wealthy. :-) One of our basic problems is control of the Government by the wealthy.

      October 11, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Reply
      • ✠RZ✠

        Agreed. Do you honestly believe that the wealthy minority actually pay more in personal taxes than the combined middle class majority?

        October 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
  9. ASDWERWER32423243556756

    HOLLYWOOD DENOUNCE.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  10. ASDWERWER32423243556756

    VICE PRESIDENT HOLLYWOOD DENOUNCE.

    October 10, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    Gerrymandering is undemocratic, when politicians choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians. The party in power in a state government uses sophisticated mapping and statistical data to redraw the map to ensure its candidates have the best chance of success, usually by diluting the electoral strength of the opposition party's supporters.

    October 11, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  12. RationalBasis

    Gerrymandering is as old as political districts. It is problematic but not the cause of the current crises in Washington. The roots of this problem lie in the loss of earmarks. Everyone thought pork was a national disgrace. However, it greased the rails of cooperation. Now there is no leverage you can use to induce compromise. Combine this with unlimited campaign money and the lawmakers are free and even encouraged to migrate to the poles on every issue. It is called the law of unintended consequences.

    October 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  13. rightospeak

    The real crisis are phony wrestling matches in a circus while the country bleeds to death. The endless wars will finish the US. The debt can never be paid-raised ceiling or not. The endless wars need to stop, the borrowing from China as well. The off shored jobs need to return, military budget slashed to put it on par with the rest of the world. that would be a start in the right direction.
    What I personally find outrageous is that the country that spends the most money in the world on the military 10 times over compared to other countries, can not afford healthcare for its citizens and even the VA does not have the money for stamps to mail their annual eligibility forms-a joke in itself to keep the vets from using the VA.

    October 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  14. Basildave

    This article is very relevant except that it only mentions the Tea Party and republicans. I live in Massachusetts and Mitt Romney won 1/3 of the popular vote in this state. However, because of the gerrymandering by the overwhelmingly democratic state legislature, he didn't win a single congressional district.

    October 14, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Reply

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