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Why gerrymandering has gotten worse

Gerrymandering: Why it's getting worse
Gerrymandering: Why it's getting worse 03:58

Remember when we learned about democracy in school: "One person, one vote," meaning that everyone's vote is as important as everyone else's? 

Once every ten years, state legislatures redraw their voting district maps to reflect any new information in the latest census. Gerrymandering is when they redraw those maps to gain a political advantage. Instead of voters choosing their representatives, the representatives choose their voters. 

And gerrymandering played a big role in this week's midterms. 

I'll show you how it works:

Suppose 15 people live in a state: 9 members of the Mauve Party, and 6 Orange Party members. If the voting districts are simple boxes, then the Mauve people will win all three districts, and send three Mauves to the House of Representatives, which doesn't seem quite fair to the Orange people.

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So, if you adjust the boundaries like this, then one Orange person gets elected. 

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But it's also possible to get really ruthless with your redistricting software. You can make it (if you're sneaky!) so that two Orange reps go to Washington - a smaller pool of Orange voters now has majority representation in Washington.

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Now you can see why so many voting districts have wacky shapes.

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"The problem is, politicians don't like to change the rules that got them in power; that's the biggest barrier," said Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor Alex Keena, co-author of two books about gerrymandering, 

Pogue asked, "Do Republicans and Democrats gerrymander equally?"

"No. We studied 48 states, just the state legislative maps," Keena said. "And we found that there were 44 gerrymanders, and 42 of those were Republican."

But that's not necessarily because one party is more unscrupulous than the other. "Republicans and Democrats alike are trying to gerrymander, if they can; Democrats just have fewer chances to do that," Keena said. "Republicans happen to control more state governments than Democrats do. But it's also geography. Democrats want to live in cities. They're all clustered in one area. They're packing themselves for the Republicans."

Now, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 makes it illegal to define a district that deprives a racial group of representation. But following the 2020 Census, Alabama drew maps that struck critics as an attempt to cram Black voters into a single district.

A district court threw out the new maps, but the Supreme Court reinstated them. With four months until the primary elections, the Supreme Court said there wasn't enough time to make a change, but they'd consider it after the election. The gerrymander stayed. 

Keena remarked, "They've essentially said, 'Probably partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but there's nothing we can do about it.'"

In the end, in the midterms, four states (Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia) wound up using maps that judges had declared illegal.

"It's hard not to get upset; you want to see a country that is free and fair and democratic," Keena said.

But it's not all over yet. A bunch of states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey) have taken the right to draw maps away from politicians, and given it to independent commissions. 

Keena said, "What's clear is that when politicians are drawing the line, then we see partisan gerrymandering. But when citizens draw the maps, we see a lot less shenanigans."

And Keena points out that pendulums do swing back, eventually.

Pogue said, "It seems like, 'Okay, now we have a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. Of course, they're not gonna do anything.'"

"Eventually, people die, and eventually people retire, and the court changes," Keena said. "All that means is, it takes a long time."

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: David Bhagat.

See also:

Gerrymandering: A threat to democracy? 10:54
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