Gerrymandering may be a recent phenomenon, but it ties into a much deeper historical context that runs back to the creation of the United States and beyond — back to ancient Greece, even. It’s fitting, then, that the potential solution ties into the very thing gerrymandering works to prevent: the political empowerment of the masses.
The United States has a long history of attempting to emulate ancient Athens, for both good and ill. If you’re not sure why that’s a bad thing, ancient Athens was never a democracy as we would recognize it today. At most, 30 percent of the adult population held the right to participate in their government. And while they had some interesting ideas, the founding fathers would have been very comfortable with an Athenian-style democracy.
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Which is to say, they didn’t want everyone to have the right to vote, and they put in place policies that would hamstring the hoi polloi. This is one of the reasons why the electoral college exists: to undermine the idea of “one person, one vote.”
Thus, gerrymandering and movements to restrict the vote like the electoral college actually tie into the same philosophical tradition rather neatly.
So what is gerrymandering then, and how does it affect voting? Take a look at this chart:
The first part shows the general population. Based purely on majority rules, green wins. In the second column, when divided into five even districts, green still wins, with green taking the majority of all five districts.
However, the third column is where we see gerrymandering in action. There are still five districts, but the way the districts are drawn means that green is divided in such a way their majority is diluted, and restricted to two districts. Yellow, meanwhile, dominates three of the five districts, which means that yellow walks away with the victory despite only representing 40 percent of the population.
That’s how gerrymandering works: it strengthens a minority while diluting a majority.
America has some pretty famous examples of gerrymandering, too. For instance, this picture from the Washington Post illustrates some of the most obviously gerrymandered districts:
Colonial British line drawing is for chumps. Get on our level, son.
It’s a general consensus that gerrymandering is a threat to democracy. After all, it guarantees the power of incumbents, and so long as a handful of morons support them, they’ll never go away. See also: Steven King of Iowa and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Now, the usual retort here is something along the lines of “the United States isn’t a ‘pure’ democracy, it’s a republic.” This tepid defense is usually offered by folks who have no idea what either term means. Republic comes from the Latin res publica, which means “matters of the public.” In a republic, officials are appointed or elected. Democracy simply means “rule of the people,” not mob rule, as some reactionaries complain. Mob rule is called an ochlocracy, and it doesn’t even require a majority.
To check against ochlocracy, democracies have the rule of law. Mob rule doesn’t have laws. That’s a rather important distinction.
Gerrymandering also gives rise to so-called “safe districts.” Accordingly, representatives in these districts were supposed to be safe, so they didn’t have to worry about running for re-election and could focus on actually being a representative.
What actually happened is that the extremists were able to seize control over the districts, shutting out the voices of moderation. It’s a sad irony, then, that gerrymandering — which comes from a long line philosophical thought that equates free and open democracy with mob rule and thus seeks to restrict the right to vote under these pretenses — itself gave rise to mob rule.
Maybe Plato could appreciate it. He was, after all, anti-democracy.
Of course, gerrymandering exists for a more visceral reason in the United States, to — the same reason the push for Voter ID laws exist: racism.
Ever since the failure of Reconstruction, the United States has had a shameful history of restricting the right to vote based on skin color. Everything from poll tests and fees to grandfather clauses — if there’s a way to restrict the vote, the United States has tried it.
It’s far less obvious than it was before, but since Democrats tend to be more diverse than Republicans are, this allows Republicans to gerrymander racially under political reasons.
So what precisely can be done about gerrymandering?
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There are a few things that we can do. We can support groups that are working to abolish it, but in the meantime, you can register as a member of the opposite party. If enough people change party affiliation, it’ll throw off the data that gets used to gerrymander.
Unfortunately, this problem won’t be going away until laws are passed that regulate it into the dustbin of history, where it belongs. But until then, everyone should be talking about it.