Democracy is a human right. This is of course an excessively vague statement, and so we should define democracy. There are many ways to do that (and we have a whole blog series about it), some good and some less good, but for better or worse we usually define democracy as a representative system in which people cast votes for candidate-politicians, and the candidates who collect a majority – sometimes a plurality – of those votes go on to become the representatives of the people. Those representatives govern, again usually by way of majority or plurality votes amongst each other, and this government is considered a good proxy of government by the people (demo-cracy). It’s considered a good proxy because of many reasons:
- Representatives have an incentive to govern in accordance with the wishes of the people, since they supposedly want to be re-elected in the future.
- The people can influence their representatives through free speech, organized political activity and the threat of dismissal.
- The people can verify the coherence between their views and the actions of politicians because of freedom of the press, government accountability rules, freedom of information rules etc.
The argument that we need a proxy for direct government by the people is itself contentious but let’s temporarily bow to standard opinion for the sake of argument.
One problem with this model of democracy is that it can be gamed. For practical purposes, the “people” in this model are usually partitioned into different sections – districts, states, provinces, constituencies etc. Each section of the people then gets to vote, and the majority – or plurality – within each section then appoints a representative to be seated in a national parliament. It’s clear that the way in which the boundaries between these sections or districts are drawn determines to some extent the outcome of the vote, and that decisions to redraw – “redistrict” – can alter the outcome substantially.
This knowledge has led politicians to exert influence on the way in which the boundaries are drawn, so as to favor their electoral prospects. For example, a white upper-class politician can manipulate district lines in such a way that the voters in the district are mainly white upper-class. Her opponent, who happens to be from a poor black community, will likely do less well with the given electorate. If the district boundaries cut across class and race, the two candidates will have a more equal contest.
It can also happen that a particular group of constituents manipulates the district boundaries, perhaps with the help of politicians or officials, for example because of racist motives: attributing black communities to other districts makes it unlikely that black politicians will have influence over racially biased white populations.
These kinds of district manipulation are called gerrymandering, and it includes both a spatial and a quantitative aspect:
- the spatial dimension of borders is manipulated – e.g. poor black neighborhoods are excluded from the district and attributed to another one
- and/or the size of the electorate is manipulated – e.g. boundaries are fixed in such a way that a relatively small pocket of voters is grouped into one district and therefore gets it’s own representative (also called malapportionment).
Needless to say, it’s usually incumbents who engage in this kind of manipulation, since it’s they who often have the authority and power to modify district boundaries.
[I]n no fewer than 44 of America’s 50 states, it is state legislatures, composed as they are of party politicians, who decide where the lines should be drawn for seats in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. The potential for abuse is so obvious that it is a kind of miracle that the system has survived as long as it has. (source)
As the saying goes, in gerrymandered election districts, the voters don’t choose their politicians – the politicians choose their voters.
The stylized example below shows the possibly dramatic effects of gerrymandering, limited to the manipulation of the borders, not the size of the districts. It’s a fictional country containing 15 citizens. There are three districts, every district gets to vote and the majority in each district decides on one of the three national representatives. The three districts are of equal size and the gerrymandering won’t modify the size of the districts, only the borders. There are two political parties, the Orange Democrats (round shapes) and the Purple Republicans (square shapes). 9 of the 15 citizens systematically vote Purple, 6 Orange, and they keep their residence fixed.
The original district lines, A, gives 1 district to Orange and 2 to Purple, roughly equivalent to the total voting pattern of 6:9. Now, as a result of this more or less correct districting, Purple becomes the majority in government, and therefore able to engage in some redistricting, which gives us situation B. Given districting B, the next election guarantees a 3 district win for Purple, a result that’s disproportional considering the nation-wide 9:6 Purple majority. Orange is no longer represented at all. However, for some mysterious and irrelevant reason, some further redistricting occurs, which gives situation C. At the next election, Orange ensures a 2-1 win notwithstanding its nation-wide minority position of 6:9.
Gerrymandering can have different motives:
- It can be used to give a certain political party a disproportionate share of national power (especially when district systems are combined with first-past-the-post elections in which the one candidate with the most votes – majority or plurality – wins the seat reserved for that district; in political systems that give seats in parliament in proportion to the total national votes, it makes no sense to gerrymander).
- It can be used to favor a certain political class (e.g. when wealthy people are systematically attributed to smaller districts).
- An individual candidate can use it to impose an electoral disadvantage on a particular opponent.
- Groups of citizens can use it to maintain supremacy and to exclude others from political participation. This exclusion can take many forms:
- groups may be included in another, very large district in which their voice will be drowned
- a group may be scattered over many districts so that they can’t unite in a coherent voting block
- or they may be attributed to a district in which their group will win anyway, in which case their votes are wasted.
This means that it can also be used in a positive way, e.g. to give disadvantaged groups a larger weight in elections. However, the word gerrymandering usually has negative connotations, and rightly so.
Sometimes it’s difficult to prove that gerrymandering took place, but a highly irregular geographical shape of a district, or big differences between the sizes of the populations of districts are good indications. Ideally, districts boundaries should be drawn randomly on the basis of census data, and should therefore not result in highly irregular and contorted shapes.
Some examples of such irregular shapes from the US:
- “Gerrymandering” carves out a dull argument (reuters.com)
- Jeff Reichert: What Is Prison-Based Gerrymandering? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Electoral boundaries in America: Time to bury Governor Gerry (economist.com)
- Redistricting: Gerrymandering as a Competitive Sport | Dissident Voice (wilderside.wordpress.com)
- Florida Supreme Court Rules Against Attempts to Stop Redistricting Reform Ballot Measures (elections.firedoglake.com)