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Just 35 of 435 Elections Competitive after 201 Years of Gerrymandering

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“Power corrupts, and the prospect of losing power corrupts absolutely.” – John P. Roche

Next November, Americans will elect representatives to the 114th Congress. As of October 20, the current Congress has an average 9.2 percent approval rating and 84.2 percent disapproval rating.

Before the Congress-led shutdown, 2014 election projections showed that of the 435 seats up for election, only 35 seats will have a competitive election. On average, there is one House member for every 700,000 citizens, a ratio that is second only to India when comparing it to the world’s representative democracies.

These numbers point to a grave problem: the House of Representatives is utterly unrepresentative. There is no doubt congressional leaders are representing some people, but certainly not everyone — much less equally.

In short, there are entire communities throughout the union that are entirely disenfranchised and cut out from national representation. All citizens are equal, but some citizens have a more meaningful voice at the polls than others. All citizens can vote and many do, but you don’t pick your representative; your representative picks you.

For the vast majority of Americans and their congressmen, general elections are little more than a formality; their outcomes are, for the most part, predetermined — the result an inevitability. Politicians don’t want competition and they want as few things as possible left to chance.

Elections were meant to serve as a proverbial Damocles’ Sword, hanging over the heads of representatives by a thread that could be cut by their constituents every two years. For many representatives, the thread is nearly indestructible.

So how has the American political machine — the cogs of which are turned by both major political parties — so effectively, and legally, diluted the power of voters? It sure didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the process began 201 years ago in Massachusetts.

In 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry was concerned that the Massachusetts Federalist Party was gaining ground on his Democratic-Republican Party. So, Senate Democratic-Republicans created a bill changing the senate district lines to give their party a distinct advantage. Gerry signed it into law, much to the chagrin of Federalist activists, including those working at the Boston Gazette.

In a Gazette issue dated March 26, 1812, a political cartoon appeared caricaturing the shape of one of the new districts in Essex County by making it seem like a winged dragon. Above the cartoon “The Gerry-mander” is emblazoned, a combination of Gerry and salamander.

The pun gained steam with Federalists in other states who used it to besmirch both Gerry (pronounced with a hard g sound) and other state legislatures that used the same redistricting tactic. The word, and the practice it came to signify, became so widespread that by 1848 it appeared in a dictionary and has since been an accepted word in the English vernacular.

Gerrymandering was strictly confined to state politics until thirty years after Governor Gerry signed that fateful law. The Apportionment Act of 1842 ordered each state to be split into “continuous, compact” congressional districts, with one district per representative.

Still, under Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress was responsible for deciding the amount of representatives apportioned to each state after every decennial national census.

However, Congress failed to pass an Apportionment Act after the 1920 census. Thus, the 1911 Apportionment Act, which increased House membership to 435, remained in place. When Congress finally passed an Apportionment Act in 1929, it chose not to increase House membership to keep up with the growing population, but permanently capped it at 435.

The bill made no mention of districts or that they should be “continuous, compact,” and have roughly the same amount of people. Significantly, it created an avenue for state legislatures to assume redistricting responsibilities, which federal lawmakers handed off to the states under the Appointment Act of 1941.

Why Congress changed its behavior (and directly violated the Constitution) is unclear. However, it is worth noting that the most significant demographic trend of the 1910s and 1920s was a massive nationwide migration of racial and ethnic minorities from rural America to America’s cities, as well as a huge influx of immigrants from war-torn Europe.

]The demographic shifts were so massive that had Congress done the usual reapportionment in 1921, many incumbents would have lost their seats. By capping the number of representatives, leaving district requirements unmentioned, and giving state legislatures a free pass on drawing lines that would keep incumbents in place, Congress diluted the impact of urban immigrants and minorities.

Despite the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sought to limit the manipulation of district lines meant to disenfranchise racial minorities, gerrymandering and race remain intractable today.

Because the 1929 apportionment act did not lay out specific rules and criteria for drawing districts, and because the 1941 apportionment act made apportionment and redistricting self-executing, no laws were passed to enforce representation standards and states went about it their own separate ways.

Many states did not redraw their lines despite population shifts, which gave voters in sparsely populated districts more voting power than those living in densely populated urban areas. Some state kept their districts, others got rid of them all together and had residents vote for their representatives at-large.

In the 1960s, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, stepped into the fray and handed down three key decisions that shape gerrymandering to this day:

  • Baker v Carr (1962): Declared that redistricting is justiciable and therefore enabling federal courts to intervene in and decide reapportionment cases. Established “one person, one vote” principle.
  • Wesberry v Sanders (February 1964): Decision required every state to draw its congressional district lines such that each district had approximately the same population. For obvious reasons, this didn’t apply to the Senate.
  • Reynold v Sims (June 1964): Formally enunciated “one person, one vote” rule and held that state legislatures also had to draw their districts such that each district had approximately the same population.

The most significant outcome was the establishment of the “one person, one vote” principle and, consequently, that states had to draw their districts such that their populations were as close to equal as possible. However, the rulings did not affect gerrymandering and also left a gigantic loophole: each district had to have the same amount of people, but not the same amount of registered voters.

That Texas-sized loophole exists today and has opened the way for such practices as gerrymandering entire prison populations (inmates can’t vote) and undocumented Hispanic immigrants, thus diluting the voting power of local citizens.

At the same time, gerrymandering has its limits. People can experience it for themselves in an online gerrymandering game where they can “crack,” “pack,” “kidnap,” and “hijack” entire populations to make sure incumbents always win (what ProPublica calls “a Devil’s Dictionary”).

Additionally, there is not necessarily a connection between gerrymandering and increasing partisanship. It’s not at all clear that gerrymandering caused the rise of far-right tea party elements from having an outsized representation in the House. That topic is an entire other investigation.

What is clear, though, is that gerrymandering has significantly diluted the power of House elections, effectively disenfranchised entire populations, and led to an unrepresentative legislative body.

Photo Credit: The New Yorker

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752 comments
Cheryl Warriner
Cheryl Warriner

Gerrymandering is what has allowed Paul Ryan to be re-elected in Wisconsin. There is just a small little protrusion on the western edge of his district to include Janesville (his home town). He would not be elected in the area where he lives. The first district is made up of the most heavily populated and wealthy cities of Wisconsin. He is not well liked in the rest of the state.

Kathleen Burt
Kathleen Burt

It's true in FL, after redistricting, Congressmen began trading districts, so they could win with a different group of voters/demographics.

Mark Welker
Mark Welker

have you ever noticed, that the only time right wingers are not bitching about the government, is when they are bragging about how the republicans have taken over the congress, governorships ,state legislatures,etc...... yet they dont put 2+2 together, and realize that the republicans are responsible for what they are bitching about. republicans have not come thru on a single promise they have made since 2010 ....... states like louisiana,wisconsin,and kansas are going under...... with the worst budgets imaginable......theres real " fiscal responsability". in2010,republicans said follow the constitution, and in 2011,were 3/4 of the votes to continue the patriot act..... they have wasted half a decade doing squat, and failing at everything they have attempted..... does someone need to drop a ton of brick on these idiots,for them to get the message? how has doubling down on dumbasses worked out for you?

Terri Clark
Terri Clark

Gerrymandering is so WRONG. Can't people win on issues any more instead of lying and cheating. It's time for some changes in our country

Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress
Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress

The development of so many safe districts stems largely from gerrymandering but also through demographic sorting as people move about. Gerrymandering can be addressed through congressional redistricting commissions and people in the ideological minority in districts, safe or not, could also be better represented by having either at-large or multi-seat districts. Congressional redistricting commissions should be nonpartisan (not bi-partisan). Potential members of these commissions should have no history of having held an elective office or of having had leadership positions in a political party. A State Auditor could screen applicants for qualifications which should include technical competence. And then five qualified applicants would be selected by lottery to serve. Hired applicants, in performing their duties would be required to avoid, whenever reasonable, increasing the ratio of the perimeter to the area of the average district. They also would be expected to respect for non-Congressional district political boundary lines, consider reasonable conformity of district lines with geographical features, and take into account legal issues. Moreover, as they perform their duties they would be required to afford no appearance of partiality toward persons such as incumbent Representatives and to be impartial toward previous Congressional boundary locations or reasonably likely demographic predictors of voting behavior of potential voters such as age, income, race, or education level. The commission should be directly accountable to the Courts whenever complaints by persons of standing are levied against the commission. If the Courts find substantial violations they would dismiss the commission. Then a commission would be put into place within two years to revise the redistricting within the following two years. To facilitate better representation of the body politic, each or the 24 smallest States that now have five or fewer Representatives should have just one at-large district. The redistricting commissions in States with six or more Representatives should draw lines for multi-seat districts with the districts having three to five seats determined according to how the votes of each citizen throughout the State could have the same weight. For example, if census figures authorize Alabama to have 7 Representatives, district lines for one district could encompass 3/7ths of the eligible voters for the State and another district could encompass 4/7ths of the voters so that in one district 3 Representatives and elected and in the other 4 Representatives. If California is authorized 53 Representatives twelve districts could be right-sized so that each could elect four Representatives and a somewhat smaller 13th district could elect three. Representatives would be elected through an approval plus grade voting method so that the winning candidates would be those who by consensus are deemed as the most acceptable combination.

Connie Yznaga Davis
Connie Yznaga Davis

Jeannie Yarger, The candidates would all be known because in addition to regular campaigning, they would have numerous nonpartisan debates before the single primary election. Bernie would still have plenty of time to make his case that "Democratic Socialism" is the way to go. He would most likely be challenged in the debate ...unlike his debates with Hillary, where they have similar core beliefs. (I would listen and say to myself "OMG, he is such a nice guy, but what is he thinking? His math/economics just don't add up"!.. but that's just me..lol)

David Fischer
David Fischer

What a poor statement this makes about our political system. When the employee tells the boss that you can't fire me, because I have arranged it that way. They move into districts where the population will definitely elect them and the political machines support their plans. In Maplewood, NJ , for instance, the local Essex County democratic party has funneled personnel into the local system to create a feeding ground of sweet deals for the developers and realtors. They used the guise of importing outside political personnel and promoting them through a oligarchy system. Total ignorance by a community whose residents only live in town for short periods of time, on average. Duped by a group of politicians who act like furry kittens, but are really rattlesnakes. By the time the average voter realizes this, they are packing to leave.

Carlos Cureau
Carlos Cureau

That's why Gore won the election by 500K votes, and Bush got to be president. Something ain't right/

Corey Judie
Corey Judie

Rick Gorud, or George Soros', or the Unions'...

Mike Withers
Mike Withers

When profit and power are no longer the reward and motivation for public service the notion of competition becomes obsolete.

Jeannie Yarger
Jeannie Yarger

Bernie would not be our next President because of the media blackout, if we did them all in one day. A lot of people are just now hearing about him.

Anatole Evans
Anatole Evans

Anyone not shouting about our corrupt and broken political system is part of the problem! When I see HRC smile and pay lip service to what Bernie Sanders has been fighting for his whole political career it makes my blood boil! Clinton's done more damage to black families than the KKK! Do your home work on the private prison industry and the get tough on crime legislation and the resulting militarization of the police! HRC and Bill Clinton as guilty as sin!!! I think the notion that congress will work in harmony with HRC has been completely dispelled! Yes I think that revolution is going to be necessary!!! Without a revolution nothing changes! Question is who is energizing voters! Who is growing the voter base? Who will turn out young voters? Who will get voters out that traditionally don't vote? Who is getting the independent vote? By far Bernie Sanders is the best hope for meaningful change and HRC is the best candidate for more status quo and republican obstruction! Look at the polling trajectory of where Sanders started and how far HRC has fallen! Amazing and totally missing from the discussion! Hillary Clinton is asking us to believe the corrupting influence of money does not change congressional bills and votes! She is asking us to believe the one percent are spending billions in lobbying for no reason! If you are buying this I got some things I would like to sell you!!! Yes the media blackout is in full effect! Check out Trump coverage Vs. Sanders!!! Guns and abortion! Keeping the people distracted and stuck on stupid! Divide and conquer! Only rich lives matter? Stand up to Hill first!! Trump is next! About as fair and balanced as the Corporate media! Feel the Bern! The two party system has been playing the same game for forty years! The only ones benefiting and getting what they want is the one percent! Just a trending news story brought to you by repetition creates reality inc. Also brought to you by just ignore Bernie Sanders inc. Not all that different from how Bill Cosby handled these questions! Bill Clinton is just a much better liar! Check out the list of allegations and the number of women making them! I believe victims and I don't trust the Clintons! Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby used power, intimidation, and a persona larger than life to silence a lot of women! Just wrong! Rape was part of the allegations and money was paid out! How many women need to come forward before we believe them? HRC is enabler in chief!

Ben Hardin
Ben Hardin

By the people, not the parties. See the February 6 posting on the FB page Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress.

Steven C. Frissora
Steven C. Frissora

"Civilized" is a word that is hard to define these days. And our votes do not always count. It sucks. I agree. But in this country it's not just our vote that matters, it's our voice. And that has power. There are many concerned about the fine details of the electoral system. Bigger problems than I'm ready to tackle. But it's good to see I'm in the company of smart people. Well, maybe not Evea... But I am excited that we all want to try to change the status quo.

Doug Philips
Doug Philips

They should all be charged with treachery against the people.

Hazel Woodall
Hazel Woodall

The way we choose a president needs to change. Should be elected by the people, not by delegates.

Connie Yznaga Davis
Connie Yznaga Davis

Wouldn't that be great. No votes are counted until Hawaii closes. Top two in the primary are the candidates, even if they are from the same party. .. popular vote wins, no delagates or super delagates needed. In the general election, the same rules would apply.

Sherwood Vaughan
Sherwood Vaughan

Corrupt electoral systems, have one purpose, too keep corrupt people in office! GO TRUMP!

Red Rick
Red Rick

it worked fine back in the 1800's. now we vote for people to vote for us, and if your gerrymandered district loses, then your vote means diddy squat. popular vote is non-existent. it's all a failure of our supposed representation.

Su Vernon
Su Vernon

Another dastardly practice which needs to be abolished permanently.

Nora Marjerison Bassett Verpoorten
Nora Marjerison Bassett Verpoorten

One nationwide primary same day, one ballot, open to all voters: no election results or predictions until last polls are closed.

Rick Gorud
Rick Gorud

Crap. I will believe it "works" the day my vote counts as much as does David Koch's.

Sharon Rowell
Sharon Rowell

Janice McKenzie Dillard March 10 at 10:06pm · Auburn, AL Ted Cruz is constantly making a big deal about how may People don't want Donald Trump, using the % that didn't vote for him. So, here are the tables turned on him: Percentage that don't want Ted Cruz🚫🚫 Michigan - 75.1% Mississippi - 63.7% Idaho - 54.6% Hawaii - 67.3% Louisiana - 62% Kentucky - 68% Kansas - 52% Maine - 54% Virginia - 83% Vermont - 90% Texas - 56% (His Home State) Tennessee - 75% Oklahoma - 66% Minnesota - 71% Massachusetts - 90% Georgia - 76% Arkansas - 69% Alabama - 79% Nevada - 79% South Carolina - 78% New Hampshire - 88% Iowa - 72%

Connie Yznaga Davis
Connie Yznaga Davis

The political lines should be drawn in a grid pattern. Heavily populated areas may only consist of one grid, and thinly populated areas would be made up of several adjacent grids. I can't understand why the people haven't demanded this a long time ago...OH! The deciders are partisan. I won't hold my breath waiting for a fair system.

Robert Weber
Robert Weber

Again.... XIV / XV section 1 of each.... Whom is a legal citizen, whom can vote ..... " ONE LEGAL CITIZEN, ONE LEGAL VOTE" ...... Constitution gave congress the mandate to in security collect all legal citizen votes ( called the populous) , count said votes, announce populous vote winner... There is NO TWO PARTIES, NO MEMBERSHIP IN THOSE TWO PARTIES, NO TAX PAYER FUNDING OF THEIR CAMPAIGNS, AND NO NOT LETTING ANYONE WHOM IS A LEGAL CITIZEN VOTE....

Sonny Rosen
Sonny Rosen

"___K both parties! I am an independent

Irina Lund
Irina Lund

Wrong picture- it should be sea of blue and dots of red.

Larry Senteney
Larry Senteney

Repugs get installed by Lying, cheating and stealing !! Not by winning or honest elections !!

Kent Crider
Kent Crider

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution. Letter to Jonathan Jackson (2 October 1780), "The Works of John Adams", vol 9, p. 511

Dennis Durgin
Dennis Durgin

THE ELECTION SYSTEM IS RIGGED TOP TO BOTTOM, SO YOU CAN PICK THE PUPPET ON THE LEFT OR THE PUPPET ON THE RIGHT. HILLARY HAD ONE THIRD THE DELIGATE VOTES NEEDE TO WIN TBE NOMINATION, BEFORE THE FIRST AMERICAN CAST THE FIRST VOTE. THAT'S YOU AND ME IN THE 100 YARD DASH WITH ME ON THE 33 YARD MARK WHEN THE GUN GOES OFF. THAT IS NOT THE AMERICAN WAY I GREW UP WITH.

Kent Crider
Kent Crider

just two political clubs owned and operated by billionaires. they control our elections and thereby control our government. that's not a democratic republic, that's a plutocracy

James Rob
James Rob

The Tea Party Republican attacks against the Communist Sanders. As an independent I will not help put a communist in the White House. Trump or Hillary are better than a communist. Prepare yourself for Trump infomercials straight from the White House if Bernie is your nominee. You keep saying Bernie is a socialist and I don't know the difference between socialism and communism but I see your socialist defending the communist revolution in Cuba!!! I think you don't know the difference or just don't give a damn putting a communist apologist in the White House As an independent I assure you that I will not help a communist get into the White House. Trump or Hillary are better than a commie. Prepare for Trump infomercials from the White House if Bernie is your nominee I agree with you fully. I was a supporter of Bernie until I saw this clip. He is defending the communist revolution in Cuba. That is not what I signed up for. Communists have destroyed entire countries when they took them over. From Afghanistan , Syria, Libya, Ukraine etc.. I will not help put a communist apologist in the White House. With all his promises I lost my trust in him. Trump or Hillary are way better than any communist https://www.facebook.com/LibertarianGirlFreedom/videos/vb.127394930745336/618229528328538/?type=2&theater

Elizabeth McMahon
Elizabeth McMahon

Why are you posting old articles? At least update them. Good grief.

John Wayne
John Wayne

BOTH Parties play WE the SLAVES as FOOLS. The continued Game of DIVIDE and CONTROL. Tools of Control, the Fake media to Brainwash, the Fake government to control, the Fake free market to create Scarcity and RELIGION to enslave the Masses through FEAR. Its a PSYOPS.

Evea Klock
Evea Klock

TURN OVER CITIZEN UNITED AND NO CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE !

Kevin M Rose
Kevin M Rose

Here's a thought. Your COUNTY=YOUR DISTRICT. Too much common sense for the aholes running this big ole government.

Jimmy Wallace
Jimmy Wallace

The two party system is owned by the same people who let American voters choose who we will be screwed over by......... Problem is we finally have someone whom the two party owners do NOT own. Trump!!!!1

Alexander Pinsky
Alexander Pinsky

No civilized country has a system where the chief executive is not elected by popular vote. Except in the US of A.

David Reed
David Reed

Yes we have this problem in Florida court's just ruled redistricting it favored the Republicans so they had to redo

Steven C. Frissora
Steven C. Frissora

Sure it does Patricia. Live overseas for a few years and you'll see it too. This is a great country, with all it's ugly flaws, insults and pompous candidates. It's all a matter of perspective - half full or half empty.

Jimmie Jones
Jimmie Jones

Well from now on the worthless crook's can pick their nose's and forget about me.