If you could make it so your party would win every election, would you do it? Would you take the steps necessary to fix the vote so that even if your party became a minority, it would still take a majority of legislative seats?
Gerrymandering… It’s the practice of fixing elections by arranging voting districts to fit the needs of a particular party. That’s our topic today. Let’s talk about this.
Every 10 years, we take a census to determine how many people are in the United States. That’s everybody. Citizens and foreigners alike. It’s important enough that it’s part of our original Constitution. Measuring the populace is a fair and equitable way to find out how many representatives each state requires. However, early on in our government’s history, a guy named Elbridge Gerry figured out that he could help himself and his party if he could use those census numbers to hack voter districts in Massachusetts so that he would be more likely to win. It was obviously unethical, but there were no laws against the practice. It raised a lot of questions. The new lines packed a lot of Federalist citizens who would vote against Republicans into one district. The end result was that even though Gerry’s Republicans had fewer total votes than the Federalists, the Republicans won considerably more seats than was equitable under what should have been an otherwise fair system. And if one squinted at that district, it sort of looked remotely like a salamander. This political satire cartoon appeared soon after in the Boston Gazette as a protest, and that’s how gerrymandering was born.
Since then, gerrymandering has become a way of life to which most us Americans are completely oblivious, but perhaps no American had been quite so determined to use this practice in the last decade as a guy named Thomas Hofeller. When Republicans gained considerable control after the 2010 census, they all called on Hofeller to redistrict their states from 2010 through 2017. So that even if there were a large Democratic contingent, the representatives would still end up favoring the Republican party. In Hofellers on words:
Of course redistricting is Democracy at work. Redistricting is like an election in reverse. It’s a great event. Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.
— Thomas Hofeller
In 2000, Census data weren’t so easily downloadable and mapping software wasn’t to the point where Census data were easily mappable. But by 2010, any US citizen could download US Census data quickly and efficiently. Free and powerful mapping software became available to mine Census Data. It became easy even on a laptop to manipulate that data and make maps of what might be ideal gerrymandered districts for one party or another. Hofeller took this freely available data, baked into a recipe, and essentially sold it to members of the Republican National Party.
This became most obvious in our 2016 election at the state level, especially in North Carolina, where the redistricting was so obviously racially biased that the state’s own supreme court ruled it unconstitutional in 2016. They had to redraw the district maps. The second time, Hofeller redrew the lines to pack and crack the Democratic party instead of race. At the next vote, Republican representation still far exceeded the number of people whom they actually represented in the US Congress. Even though almost half of North Carolinians voted Democrat, they only won three of the thirteen available Congressional seats. The state supreme court ruled again that they had to redraw the lines a third time, and there are still questions as to whether the lines are equitably drawn. Buncombe county officials are so concerned, they’re balking at proposed lines even today and seem to be considering drawing their own.
So this isn’t just happening at the federal level. All over the US, Hofeller’s gerrymandering is taking its toll on US voters by making it more and more difficult for equitable representation on federal, state and local levels. Hofeller is dead, but his estranged daughter found files on his computer that she shared with voters’ rights activists that prove that he had his hand in the redistricting of a lot of America, all for the sake of a single party. In a lot of places, this is still in effect. And yes, it’s not just the Republican party that’s been doing this. In response, Maryland started gerrymandering in favor of Democrats. Regardless, by 2017, three fifths of states have been gerrymandered to a great extent and citizen representation is unbalanced.
By 2018, the US Supreme Court said that since it was no longer about racial gerrymandering as it was in North Carolina, it wasn’t their problem. States would need to fix this themselves. And some states are making inroads… But here’s the thing. If Democrats had done the same thing country-wide, Republicans would likely also be indignant at their under-representation. Regardless of which party is doing the gerrymandering, if it becomes impossible to vote a party out of office, you have birthed a de facto one-party system that allows a minority to rule. That’s a recipe for legislative disaster as we’ve seen in many non-democratic countries. Why? Because parties change. The Republican Party of today isn’t the Republican Party of Nixon’s time and especially not of Lincoln’s time or Gerry’s. If Lincoln had been president today, his views would be more aligned to the current Democratic party. At some point it’s likely your party will no longer represent your views even when your party is the ruling party. What will you do when you cross that threshold? What will you do when you are no longer truly represented?
Gerrymandering needs to be abolished. But what do we replace it with? Maths. We need a fair algorithmic method for redrawing district lines after every census. One way would be to use the shortest split line algorithm, but this hack has some huge flaws. To learn more about this method, check out CGP Grey’s video. Since then, a guy named Brian Olson came up with an even fairer methodology that adapts shortest split line. He calls it Algorithmic Gerrymandering. (See links in the show notes.) Districts are fairer, impartial and yield a representation that closer approximates the percentage of actual parties that vote. Because free data and free software allow anyone with a laptop and the knowledge to peruse non-proprietary, free and open-source algorithms, voters’ rights activists and interested individuals can use mock election results and student t-test forensics to determine whether the new census redistricting is fair. Brian Olson talks about his method in this video from 2017.
The first new amendment I would create would be for the abolishment of gerrymandering at local, state and federal levels in favor of algorithmic gerrymandering. The amendment should include the requirement to adopt newly discovered fairer algorithms for redistricting as they are discovered and vetted by impartial forensic mathematicians. States and localities would be required to hire two separate non-partisan forensic maths professional committees from universities at two other states to use methods like Olson’s to calculate and determine the equity of census redistricting lines prior to their use. This would be a first step toward equity and fairness in representation amongst voters. No party should be unfairly over- or under-represented.
In the previous segment, I suggested that I had a few ideas on how I would amend the Constitution. This is the first change I would make. It’s not addressed in our existing Constitution, nor in any of its amendments. It’s also non-partisan and benefits all parties that might be represented. I’ll be honest though. I know it’s not a perfect answer. It’s just better than what we’ve got. And we can improve it as we go along. Fail forward. I’m curious though… I’ll bet I’m not the only one who has thought about this. Do you have ideas for redistricting? How would you approach the gerrymandering challenge? Why not chat about it in the comments below?
So that’s what’s going through my head today. I hope I got you thinking. I hope you learned something. If you have, please subscribe, hit the like button and ring the bell icon so you won’t miss future videos. Visit my website and share this channel with your friends. Thanks for crossing the road with me today. This is Chris, the Amateur Ethicist, and I hope you’ll see me in the next video.
VOX: The man who rigged America’s election maps
*CGP Grey’s Video:* The Shortest-Splitline Algorithm: a Gerrymandering Solution [Bonus Video]