You've likely heard about gerrymandering in the United States. As the country becomes more and more divided over political issues, it's a term that comes up a lot. So what is gerrymandering, and why is it so bad?
Gerrymandering is a tool employed by many congressmen to ensure they stay in power. Every 10 years, the borders of congressional districts are updated by the census board to decide which voters fall into which electoral districts. Gerrymandering happens when those new districts are redrawn in a way that benefits one party over the other. These redrawn districts are often clearly designed to cut out certain groups like racial and religious minorities or working class citizens. If a politician is worried that a certain group of people might vote them out in the next election, they can work with the majority party to redraw the district to ensure that the opposition is cut out of the conversation.
This is a crucial issue people care about. In May of 2017, the Supreme Court ordered two gerrymandered districts in North Carolina to be redrawn because they were designed to segregate voters by race, and other districts have been stricken down by the courts as well. While these individual wins are terrific for democracy, some of the most gerrymandered districts in America are still skewing the electoral system.
Maryland takes gerrymandering to a whole new level with its 3rd district, which throws all logic aside with its bizarre shape. This seat in congress has been held by the Democrats since the district was redrawn in 2000, and it isn't likely to change hands in the near future.
The 3rd isn't the only district in the state affected by this gerrymandering. Maryland districts are among the least compact and most gerrymandered in the country.
Massachusetts was one of the first states that dealt with the issue of gerrymandering; it even gave the practice its name. In 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill into law which redrew the district lines in his state. This gave his party, the Democratic-Republicans, a clear advantage over the Federalists. The district, which some said looked like a slithering salamander, was depicted in the Boston Gazette as a "Gerrymander." The name stuck, and hundreds of years later, Massachusetts is still dealing with the issue.
Massachusetts's 7th district covers about 70% of the city of Boston, while the majority of the rest is in the 8th district. The 7th has a much larger population of black people living within its borders, and has a median income that is about $22,000 per year less than the 8th. It's possible that this is a gerrymander built along class lines, combining more affluent areas of Boston with the suburbs to create the 8th, and packing lower income residents into the 7th.
This district actually looks a lot better than it used to, and that's thanks to the Florida Supreme Court. They decided that the old boundaries were too insane to justify - but, unfortunately, the new district is still problematic. North Florida's two largest cities, Jacksonville and Tallahassee, have been split in half and joined together to create the 5th district. This new district has a plurality black population, while the other districts that make up Jacksonville and Tallahassee, the 4th and the 2nd, are both majority white.
This is a strategy known as packing, where similar voters in different locations are lumped together into one district. In this case, Republicans packed a bunch of black voters from these two major cities into a district that was going to vote Democrat anyway, diluting the black vote in their own districts. The 4th and the 2nd are now safely Republican, while the 5th is safely Democrat. In a fair system, the borders of these districts would be more locally concentrated, allowing elections to be much more competitive.
This district is ranked as the fifth least compact in the United States, meaning it's long and wiggly rather than square or circular. The 7th touches five different counties, and some parts are as narrow as 800 feet.
Before the redistricting, the 7th had a slight Democratic majority. The new, serpentine district now has a slight Republican majority, and you can bet that isn't an accident. There are over 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania but, thanks to gerrymandering, only five of the state's 18 seats in the House of Representatives are controlled by Democrats.