Deep Dive: How to Win an Election-Gerrymandering

By: Jim Cowles

We have all done this.  Been on a playground, usually as a kid, and chosen sides for a ‘pick-up’ game of baseball, basketball, football, etc. One ’captain’ chooses a player first, then the other chooses one, and they continue to alternate until the teams are set and the games begin.  It’s the fair way. But, what if one captain got to pick his or her entire team first, all of them, before the other captain got even one? You could play the game, but it wouldn’t be much of a competition.

That is sort of what gerrymandering is to the election process for the U.S. House of Representatives. Most states (37 at last count) provide that their state legislative bodies get to draw the lines for their Congressional Districts. This means that whichever party is in control of the state usually gets to draw the lines that organize voters into districts. When the majority party maps out these congressional districts in a way that intentionally aims to gain them more seats, or preserve the ones they have, that is gerrymandering. And it’s not new.   In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Gerry redrew the boundaries of a district in a way that made it appear so contorted on the map that many said it looked like a salamander. A local newspaper published an image of the map and called it a ‘Gerry-mander’, popularizing the term we now use to refer to partisan redistricting.

 
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But now let’s continue with the sports analogy. Remember the book, and the movie, Moneyball?  It’s the story of how the Oakland Athletics baseball team levered statistics and data to revolutionize how professional sports teams construct their roster of players.

Well, now apply stats and data regarding voters to the drawing up of congressional districts and you have gerrymandering on steroids. So why does this matter? Well, if politicians are choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their representatives, that undermines the process, and some would argue, the legitimacy, of our elections. So as The Venn focuses on the 2020 election issues and candidates, we also want to bring attention to how the election process now works in the US. This week we focus on gerrymandering and in subsequent weeks we will drill into issues such as social media’s impact, the influence of ‘big money’ contributions, and the debate regarding the electoral college process.

Again, why does this matter? Well think about the example at the beginning of this article. If one ‘captain’ gets to pick his/her entire team before the other one, then the kids on the second team may still play the game, but more likely they will just go home. Is that what we want from our elections?