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Important Midterm Elections: Gerrymandering At Root of Legislative Gridlock

October 20, 2013
Gerrymandering is named after Elbridge Gerry, though ironically he despised the process of stacking districts.

Gerrymandering is named after Elbridge Gerry, though ironically he despised the process of stacking districts.

While many are groaning about the early onset of the 2016 Presidential contest (in the fall of 2013, potential candidates are already jockeying in Iowa to get a leg up on the completion), the real election is a little over a year away.  Often overlooked, the mid-term election has have historically given the opposition party a chance to make huge gains in their plurality.As many voters chose to stay at home in non-Presidential years, turnout is a critical factor in mid-term elections.  Many people are not excited to cast their votes in these lesser elections, but close races become even closer with low percentages of eligible voters trekking to the poles.  While turnout for Presidential elections has historically been 50-60 percent, most mid-term contests barely crack one-third of the constituency exercising their franchise.

Recent mid-term election victories that have posted substantial gains in the House of Representatives (1994 and 2010 for the Republicans; 2006 for the Democrats) had turnout north of 40 percent. It is interesting to note that while the Democrats won 1.7 million more votes for the House than the Republicans in the 2012 election, yet they gained only eight seats, the largest such discrepancy since 1950.

Decisive battles often occur at the state level, where governorships are often on the line (in Illinois where I live, the governor’s race was purpose shifted a couple of decades ago to non-presidential years) and in the statehouse races that determine vital redistricting every ten years.

In 24 states, Republicans maintain complete control — both state houses and the governorship—with nearly 50 percent of these shifting in the last mid-term (2010).  Full Democratic Party rule is currently in 14 states, but the Republicans have many of the most populous states, including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan.  Of the largest states, only New York, California and Illinois are completely in the Democratic column.

What makes this interesting is the extreme gerrymandering; extensive computer analysis and sophisticated mapping programs draw crazily shaped “safe” legislative districts.  The unintended consequence of this extreme redistricting is that Republican legislators are more vulnerable in primary fights, attacked by members of their own party for not being conservative enough (I suppose it could happen on the Democratic left too).

This extreme gerrymandering gives us legislators who are much more inclined to stick with the party; without a mixed constituency of voters, there is little incentive for compromise.  The resulting U.S. Congressional gridlock is the price we all pay, no matter which state we live in.


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  1. Shelby Ostergaard permalink

    Have you ever seen the gerrymandering game? It’s weirdly addictive and explains gerrymandering better than anything I’ve ever read.

    However, here is the inevitable problem with gerrymandered districts—minorities don’t vote Republican. One of the best ways to ensure more accurate representation in Congress is to create majority-minority districts. If you take a district like Illinois 7th, which is a majority-minority Black district, constituents are much more likely to elect a Black rep (which they did. Danny Davis in da House! Literally.). It gets us closer to having a Congress that looks like the American people do. But the problem is, in addition to being a majority-minority district, IL 7 is a Democrat safe district. And taking all of those Democratic voters, who also happen to be minority voters, and lumping them into one district creates a couple of Republican safe districts around them. This concept doesn’t quite hold true in Illinois because Chicago is so blue it hurts, but you get the idea. Basically you either have majority-minority districts and automatic gerrymandering, or you have no gerrymandering and another electoral barrier to minority representation in Congress.

    What do you think? Are majority-minority districts worth it?

    • I agree there should be Black and Hispanic districts, but sometimes the lines are bizarre. Here’s the Illinois 4th: or It looks like a weirdly twisted C, with the middle part being the IL-7th, a traditionally Black district (incidenitially, it’s mine here in Oak Park).
      Illinois is very blue, so they can toss in a few suburban areas (some Repub leaning) and it doesn’t dilute the Hispanic population too much. In a previous 1990s map when the Republicans controlled the process, the village of Oak Park was part of no less than 3 different Congressional districts.
      Florida in the 1980s and even into the 1990s had some Hispanic districts that went Republican, the Cubans being very anti-Castro and anti-Communist Republicans. Rare now that immigration is the big issue, not anti-Communism

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