Columns, Opinions

Miller ’19: Gerrymandering – a political scapegoat

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

According to an old saw, gerrymandering is the “root of all political evil” in the United States. Certainly, it has been a facet of majority rule since the Union was formed. But is it the fundamental corruption of an otherwise flawless system or a scapegoat for many other political ailments?

Gerrymandering is the intentional manipulation of suffrage by corralling voters with known political leanings into voting districts where their ballots will cause partisan advantage or disadvantage to one party, race, class or point of view. The act of gerrymandering is usually accomplished via the drawing of voting districts to favor or accentuate a point of view or party affiliation over its competitors.

Today, regardless of which political party is currently in power, gerrymandering is still a tool used nationwide to solidify and thereafter preserve the influence of the party in question. In some instances, district lines have been drawn so finely as to encompass single houses or create districts whose maps are so convoluted as to have been nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” or “The Upside-Down Elephant” based on their physical resemblance to those scenarios. Many argue that this practice reduces competition, ferments extremism and improperly dilutes voices in a political system where everyone is entitled to an equal and unweighted vote in the election of their government representatives.

Yes, gerrymandering creates small, misshapen districts — concentrating like-minded individuals, diminishing or increasing their voting power, drowning out many voices and breeding a platform for extremism. However, it is naive to think that gerrymandering is the sole root of our political problems and that “fairly” redrawing the lines would act as a national panacea.

Rhode Island is an example of a state where gerrymandering has had discernible results. According to a legal brief quoted in the Providence Journal, “as of 2017, Democrats hold 86 percent of the state Senate seats and 84 percent of the seats in the General Assembly.” The Journal continues: “For context: The 307,600 registered Democrats make up 39.9 percent of R.I.’s 770,589 voters.” This state of affairs has policy implications; in 2016, the Democratic-held legislature passed a law that increased tolls on trucks though the majority of voters polled preferred an alternative Republican proposal.

In response to 2011 redistricting, The Herald editorialized: “We cannot support a redistricting bill that was conceived without the best interests of Rhode Island at heart.”  The argument is clear that gerrymandering has imbalanced the Rhode Island political system to favor Democrats, and in so doing has drowned out the voices of many constituents.

However, according to FiveThirtyEight’s recent “Gerrymandering Project,” regardless of how you redraw the map and redistrict the state, Democrats are still most likely to win both Congressional seats on the national level. According to their model, when redrawing lines to maximize Republican advantage or create the most competitive election, the odds of a Democratic victory in the second district, which encompasses southern and western Rhode Island, fall from over 85 percent to 65 percent, and the number of expected Republican seats out of the current two rises from 0.2 to 0.3. While not insignificant, these small increases alone do not reflect a large enough impact to claim that gerrymandering has been the sole impediment to fairness in the democratic process in Rhode Island. And, according to the same research, Rhode Island’s second congressional district is one of only 30 districts of the 435 in the United States that would be considered competitive — where a party would win by a margin of less than 20 percent — once redistricted to favor either Republicans or Democrats. An argument can be made that Rhode Island is so small that it is not representative of the national landscape, but non-competitive elections are clearly a nationwide problem that the reversal of gerrymandering alone will not solve.

These numbers show that gerrymandering to maximize partisan advantage does not fully explain the symptoms frequently associated with it.  A more relevant culprit can be identified in the “Big Sort,”  the idea that like-minded individuals are clustering in certain districts, leading to a further polarization of the democratic system. Following the 2016 election, an article titled “Don’t Move to Canada, Liberals. Move to a Swing State” implored liberals looking to flee President Trump’s America to instead move to competitive electoral states and balance the increasingly polarized electoral college. In other words, the article argues that individuals should fight fire with fire:  settle away from like-minded individuals to make more districts competitive and increase individual voting power. Certainly, if we continue to view gerrymandering as an evil, we cannot use it as a solution to the very problem of which we complain. At the very least, while we should not lay idle and allow the worst excesses of gerrymandering to persist, we cannot continue to label it as the root of every flaw in our political system.

Emily Miller ’19 is moving to Ohio and can be reached at emily_miller@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.