Gerrymandering is nothing new. It dates back to at least 1812 in the United States. Both parties have been guilty of it throughout history, including recently. Republicans have benefited from it more in recent years, largely because they control more state legislatures, and perhaps also because they have been somewhat more shameless in their efforts to manipulate boundaries for political gain.
It has always been completely legal, if done for mere political reasons, as opposed to efforts to suppress the votes of one group or another. It has also always been wildly unethical and unfair. It has also always been unpopular in America, betraying the sense of fair play that many see as an American ideal. Recent polling has confirmed this, with people who oppose gerrymandering outnumbering those who support it by more than a 5 to 1 margin (52 to 9 in a recent Economist/YouGov poll). Even Republican voters, whose party has recently benefited most from gerrymandering, oppose it 3 to 1.
Gerrymandering has also frequently had a nasty racist tinge to it as well. Because race (especially in recent years) is a strong predictor of voting preferences, it has increasingly been used as a dominant factor in determining voting district boundaries. This is done in two ways. Where there is a large African-American or Hispanic population, effort is made to draw boundaries carefully to pack them into as few districts as possible, while leaving a larger number of districts heavily dominated by white voters. Where minorities are thinner on the ground, effort is made to disperse them as thinly as possible through multiple districts to deny them any significant voting power. North Carolina’s state legislature got caught in a particularly clumsy attempt to do this earlier this year, and is being forced by the Supreme Court to redraw its maps. Do not doubt that other states have been less ham-handed than North Carolina, and more successful in using race as the primary factor to redraw districts.
The result of gerrymandering is to produce districts that are homogenous and non-competitive, that almost never change hands politically. In a country which is split almost evenly between conservatives and liberals, this is intolerable. The Founding Fathers intended the House of Representatives, in particular, to be capable of rapid change, to reflect changes in voter opinion. That is nowhere near the case now, with 93% of incumbents being reelected in 2016 despite record low approval of Congress as a whole. Gerrymandered districts are a prime reason for this. Most Congressmen now (particularly Republicans who have shown a greater propensity to devour their own in great, gallivanting RINO hunts) fear being challenged in the primary far more than they do losing the general election, because the latter just isn’t going to happen because their district is so homogeneous.
Gerrymandering has always been a distasteful, nasty, unpopular and frequently racist example of bare knuckle power politics, but somehow we have never mustered the courage to get rid of it.
That has to change.
It has to change because more than just being distasteful, now it threatens to undermine our democracy. With the dramatic advances in information technology over the last few years, now political parties and the tech contractors they hire can discern probable voting patterns with laser-like precision. That enables them to redraw districts with scientific accuracy.
The logical result of this is that politicians are pushed further to the extremes. Republicans have to move further to the right to get elected, and Democrats have to move further to the left. More and more extremists uninterested in compromise are sent to Washington, with predictable dysfunction the ultimate result. The center that has always been the key to successful governance is disappearing. Not because less Americans want their parties to work together (according to a recent Pew poll, 73% of all Americans, heck even 55% of Trump voters, want more bipartisan cooperation). It is happening because gerrymandering is inflating the influence of the minority of extremists uninterested in any type of compromise.
There are a number of states, led by California, that are taking steps in the right direction toward eliminating gerrymandering. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is leading a public campaign to end it. These efforts need to be successful and adopted by all states before the next census results (2020) spark the next round of partisan gerrymandering. Voting district boundaries need to be established by non-partisan experts along fair lines that ensure more competition so that the full diversity of America, both racially and politically, is represented in our Congress, and so that Congress can once again fulfill its role of reflecting and representing changes in our political views. If non-partisan doesn’t work for some reason, at the very least redistricting bodies need to be strictly bipartisan, with equal representation from both parties to ensure some modicum of fairness.
To put it most simply, this reform is needed so that we can resume exercising what may be our most cherished political right — the right to throw the bums out when we are disappointed with them or feel they are no longer representing our views. That right barely exists now.