Image caption Gerrymandering does “the least that it can do to keep us from getting kicked out of office,” says Michael Li, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center
Last week a United States federal judge slapped Republican lawmakers with a sweeping ruling that they engaged in political gerrymandering.
At issue was the distribution of congressional districts, using those which had a high party identification and where political districts (the basis for the map) were ever changing over time.
The judge ruled against districts drawn for the 2012 and 2014 elections, saying they were unduly partisan.
The decision is a loss for the state legislature, because it affects the political effectiveness of district lines drawn in the year 2020, when the 2020 census will be conducted.
Coupled with research published by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, the judgement means that the partisan grip on the nation’s political system is at its strongest ever.
In a decade, a “modified closed district” (defined as one in which political party identification is not a determining factor for the electoral boundaries), will be a mandatory standard for drawing district lines.
Pew researchers said they found that more than 60% of the nation’s 2,000-plus districts were “rigged” in favour of one party or the other since 2000, and that these matched the so-called model map.
What is gerrymandering?
“The goal of gerrymandering is to find as small an area you can to pack a vote in and not distribute the vote, particularly if it’s uninhabited” and/or poor people might find it tough to vote for a particular party, the Brennan Center’s senior fellow Michael Li told the BBC’s World Tonight.
Of course, that has a huge impact on a multi-seat district, by limiting its electorate’s ability to bring change, he adds.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Gerrymandering can make it harder for people to unseat their elected representatives
“It’s designed to create the most dominant political party in the most favorable district it can,” he says.
“The problem is that gerrymandering has grown to the point where it literally is keeping people from voting – and when people don’t vote it’s harder for them to oppose their elected representatives and cause them to lose their majorities.”
Lately there has been a “bigger concerted effort” to redraw district lines, he says, because districts are now closer together – unlike decades ago – which makes it more difficult to replicate a strategy used in the 20th century.
The Brennan Center has produced this map to compare its findings with the 1990-99 map.
Where has the practice come from?
Richard Neustadt, professor of political science at Harvard University, says there is a link between gerrymandering and the country’s geography.
“It was not so much a question of the federal government, as a question of the governance process of the state”, he says.
“It was in a sense, a question of ‘whether a government which is trying to be objective can really be effective.”
But over time, he says, that changed.
“It became an issue of courts, the First Amendment, and elections laws, and different states sought to draw their own rules and to work within the framework of the constitution.”
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Gerrymandering can also make it more difficult for groups to get a candidate elected
But should gerrymandering be outlawed?
“The courts have much more than we have the power to stop it”, Professor Neustadt says.
“If you pass a change to the constitution, of course, you can go back to the federal courts to try to find a way to stop gerrymandering and then there is a political war there as well.
“It’s not obvious to me why you would want to take that power away and turn it over to the federal courts – unless you are saying that’s too federalised of a court – to have a more aggressive interpretation of our rights – and you are not doing that here”.
Who profits from gerrymandering?
Last week’s ruling stemmed from lawsuits based on an analysis by the Brennan Center of all nine states (and their congressional delegations) that have a history of using race as a factor in drawing district lines.
The US Justice Department successfully intervened in a legal challenge brought by the League of Women Voters of Georgia.
One of the groups involved in the nationwide litigation – Common