Who decides who I get to vote for?

Let’s talk about gerrymandering. It plays a big part in determining who represents you in the government.

What is gerrymandering? Let’s listen to former Attorney General Eric Holder explain...

So how exactly does gerrymandering work?

Every 10 years, the United States counts everybody in the country in a nationwide census. Each state's population count determines how many members it has in the House of Representatives.

After the census is taken, each state draws new district lines to reflect the population data collected in the census. Lines are redrawn for state AND congressional districts.

Who draws the district lines depends on which state you live in. Most states have their state legislatures redraw the districts, but other states have commissions redraw them. 

States that don’t have their state legislatures redraw electoral districts every 10 years use a combination of independent commissions and politician commissions.

An independent commission is made up of individuals who do not serve in the government. While local government officials may choose who serves on the commission, the chosen members are not as directly influenced by politics as elected officials would be.

The states that use independent commissions are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Washington.

A politician commission is made up of a group of politicians in that respective state government. This can include state legislators, the governor, the secretary of state, as well as other positions.

The states that use politician commissions are: Arkansas (GOP controlled), Hawaii (bipartisan) Missouri (bipartisan), New Jersey (bipartisan), Ohio (GOP controlled), and Pennsylvania (bipartisan).

Gerrymandering has always been a part of how our government determines representation. Why has it become much more of a major concern in recent years?

As former Attorney General Eric Holder explained, new technology has amplified the inherent problems of gerrymandering. Computers can divide districts in an extra-ordinarily precise manner, down to specific streets and neighborhoods.

Gerrymandering can be used for political gain by placing certain voters into districts in a way that effectively neutralizes their voices.

There are two specific ways that gerrymandering can happen: cracking and packing.

Cracking is when you take a large portion of voters and spread them out over several districts to dilute their representation (left example under “Disproportionate Outcomes”).

Packing is when you take a large number of voters and cram them into a fewer districts to reduce their influence overall (right example under "Disproportionate Outcomes”).

Take a look at the image to see how cracking and packing dilute representation compared to a proportional system.

In some cases, the minority party is given more representation than it deserves.

For example: in 2018 Democrats won a majority (53% to 45.6%) of the congressional vote in Wisconsin. However, they only won 3 of Wisconsin’s 8 House seats due to how the districts were drawn.

Because state legislative districts can be gerrymandered, the Democrats had a similar result at the state level as well. In 2018 Democrats won 52.99% of the statewide vote, but only won 36 of the 99 seats in the State Assembly. By comparison the Republicans won 44.75% of the vote but captured 63 seats in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering on racial grounds was illegal. But, in 2019, the Court ruled that federal courts could not even hear cases challenging partisan gerrymandering.

As a result, in order to reduce or eliminate partisan gerrymandering, the U.S. would have to pass a constitutional amendment. Alternatively, all states could adopt commissions to redraw their districts in a nonpartisan way.

This is yet another reason why voting is so important. None of this can change if you don’t vote. Gerrymandering can deprive people of their representation, so make sure your voice is heard!

John Oliver’s TV program on HBO, Last Week Tonight, did a feature on gerrymandering for once of its episodes. (Video contains strong language).

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute hosted former Attorney General Eric Holder for a discussion about gerrymandering and its effects on our Democracy.

NCSL has a list of redistricting resources describing various features and research about the redistricting process. Many of these resources are derived from the most recent redistricting in 2010-2011, so many of these resources may be updated in the coming months and years. Some of the more noteworthy resources include a report on how to draw districts that stand up in court, a slideshow review of the 2010 redistricting process, and a slideshow explaining how the U.S. population has changed and is projected to change into the future.

The Brennan Center for Justice has an overview of gerrymandering and the problems it poses. They have a brief article, list of resources, and potential solutions about redistricting here, and a brief article, list of resources, and potential solutions for a fair census here.

Fairvote.org has a set of interactive maps that show how representation in government is determined throughout the world, as well as the voting systems other countries use.

You can read about the origins of the term “gerrymandering” from the Smithsonian.

The Public Policy Center at UMASS Dartmouth created a detailed blog post about gerrymandering as a whole, its history, how it works, and the problems it poses.