Gerrymandering is alive and kicking in the USA

Posted By: November 05, 2016

Gerrymandering in the north may have been abolished decades ago but as Political Correspondent John Manley reports from Washington DC it’s surprisingly prevalent in the world’s largest democracy

John Manley. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, November 5, 2016

PEOPLE in the north like to think we wrote the book on gerrymandering. From the drawing of the border nearly a century ago to the subsequent manipulation of local authority boundaries, both of which gave Protestants an inbuilt majority, the region regarded itself as something of a world authority.

The practice has largely been confined to history here but looks across the Atlantic to the world’s largest  democracy and you’ll find it’s still alive and well.

Next week’s presidential race is decided by the electoral college system, based initially on a straight headcount – or ‘popular vote’ – in each of the US’s 50 states, so there’s no gerrymandering at play in that contest.

However, on Tuesday Americans will also go to the polls to elect 435 members of the House of Representatives, each of which represents a congressional district, similar to Westminster constituencies. It’s here that many people, particularly Democrats, see a problem.

The number of congressional districts for each state is based on population; California, the US’s most populous state, has 53, whereas Wyoming, with a population of around 580,000, has just one.

It seems straightforward on paper but the manner in which the boundaries have been redrawn in recent years by the Republican-dominated state legislatures would make northern Ireland’s founding fathers blush and certainly bring some perspective to current unionist resistance to Boundary Commission proposals for redrawing the north’s electoral map.

Unlike electoral constituencies in Britain and Ireland, which are notionally based on geography and localized affiliations, many congressional districts have been designed to maximize and consolidate power.

While both sides are guilty of gerrymandering, it’s estimated that when the boundaries were redrawn after the last US census in 2010, more than half deliberately favored Republicans.

By comparison, only around one-in-ten gave Democrats an advantage, while the remainder were drawn independently.

“After the Tea Party wave in 2010, Republicans dominated the state legislatures and took gerrymandering to a completely new level,” says Mo Elleithe, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics, who previously worked as a senior communications strategist for the Democrats.

“They drew more Republican districts and pushed Democrats into more condensed districts, often pitching two Democratic incumbents against one another.”

The idea was not so much to create overwhelmingly safe Republican seats but to ensure a smaller number of districts where their opponent’s support was concentrated.

For example, some districts were intentionally redrawn by Republican legislatures to link together Democrat-favouring African-American communities, with the boundary meandering across the state to ensure it included pockets sometimes hundreds of miles apart.

The irregular shapes that emerged within the convoluted boundaries have led districts to be given nicknames like ‘the praying mantis’ in Maryland or Pennsylvania’s ‘Goofy kicking Donald Duck’.

In some quarters bringing together, African-American areas was seen as a positive because it saw more blacks elected to Congress.

On the flip side, however, it minimized the potential for greater Democratic representation.

While the last redrawing of the boundaries enabled Republicans to dominate the House of Representatives by 247 to 188 with a minority of the popular vote, there have been unforeseen consequences for the party, according to Mr. Elleithe.

“In a way drawing more and more conservative districts meant the Republican Party became a victim of its own success,” he says.

“Because there were now fewer swing districts the Republican incumbents no longer feared the wrath of swing voters, which just pushes them further to the fringe.”

He points to the case of Eric Cantor, a senior congressman who after his district was redrawn post-census lost the Republican primary in 2013 to complete unknown Dave Brat. Cantor had been accused by the more extreme Brat, somewhat dubiously, of cozying up to the Democrats.

Mr. Elliethe believes the 2018 mid-term elections are crucial for the future of US politics because the result will dictate which side gets to redraw the boundaries after the 2020 census.

While he believes Hillary Clinton will emerge victorious from next week’s election, he’s not overly optimistic about the forthcoming term in the Republican-dominated Congress,

pointing to the potential for impeaching the newly-elected president over her use of a non-secure email account or failing to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.

“Republican dominance as a result of gerrymandering could dictate the entire agenda going forward and further polarize politics, when what’s actually needed is a more bipartisan approach,” he says.