The problem of gerrymandering

The_Gerry-Mander_EditIn 2012 more people voted for Democratic congressional candidates than for Republicans, but Republicans retained control of the House. There are many reasons for that, including the fact that some people couldn’t vote for their favored party, because some candidates were unopposed. Another factor is gerrymandering. It is true that, following the 2010 census, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in more states than Democrats for the first time in at least 80 years.

Let us imagine a small state with just four congressional districts. There is one city with a substantial commuter belt and a large rural area. The rural area is around 60% Republican and is populous enough to have its own congressman. The core central area of the city also has the population to earn the state a congressman, and 80% of its voters are Democrats. The suburbs and commuter counties have enough population for two congressmen and these counties are about 55% Republican. That means the state has four congressmen and is equally divided between the two parties.

How would the parties like the district boundaries to be drawn? Democrats would like to the see the city – its core and the commuter counties – looked at together and sliced like a cake. Each group of commuter counties would have a section of the heavily-Democratic core attached. All three districts would be Democratic, leaving just the rural area with a Republican congressman.

Republicans would prefer the Democratic city center to have its own congressman – the donut approach. The Republican ring of the donut would have two congressmen. Each party is able to draw the boundaries in such a way as to deliver three of the four districts, even though the parties are evenly divided statewide.

Typically, no party would be able to get its own way unless it controlled both houses of the state legislature and the governorship. This is why Democrats had their own way for decades. Until the 1990s they had twice as many state legislators. This meant they often controlled all three branches and Republicans almost never did.

If the three elected branches are not all controlled by the same party, a compromise would emerge. This would probably pair the conservative commuter counties with some rural counties and the more liberal ones with the core of the city. By this means not only does each party get two districts but all the districts can be made very safe. The general election is rendered moot and the primaries settle everything.

Except that if the core of the city has an ethnic minority as its majority, there is a different legal pressure in force. States are supposed to create minority-majority districts. This means splitting the core of the city in the way Democrats prefer, because it gives them three districts, is illegal. Even creating a second safe district might be impossible. By concentrating Democrats into a single minority-majority district it opens the path for three districts with a Republican majority.

Worse, the minority politician is elected from a district with a huge Democratic majority. He does not tack to the center to win swing voters, but to the left to avoid a primary challenger. When it comes to a statewide contest a Republican from the moderate suburbs will likely beat a candidate from the ultra-liberal core of the city. Minority candidates get to the House but not the Senate or governor’s mansion.


Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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