Gerrymandering: as it declines – surprising results

Gerrymandering - I appraised it back when most blue and Red states shared equally in this crime against democracy. Now, big changes are afoot, at long last, and reform has veered in unexpected ways. Prepare for several surprises.

First a little background. Post-election, shallow rationalizations fingerpoint at California, where Democrats increased their control over the legislature to a 2/3 majority in both houses. Many Republican friends bemoan this, attributing the partisan tsunami to everything from demographic shifts away from white-male supremacy to a growing “culture of dependency.”

== Rule by the Takers? ==

Bill O’Reilly leads the sour grapes refrain — that a majority of voters, lacking any concept of citizenship or deferred gratification, are interested only in “voting themselves stuff…”

…which is another grumbled version of the Tytler Calumny… (O’Reilly only replaces a smartypants word “largesse” with “stuff.”) This slander against democracy has been dogma in grouchy circles for 90 years, even though it lacks a single actual example from all of human history.

Grouches call the Tytler Calumny an iron law – that democracies are all doomed as citizens become greedy, lazy and decadent, causing collapse, followed by the inevitable return of oligarchy and tyranny. They call Abe Lincoln a fool to hope – “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  

Whiney, disloyal… and wrong.

Sure, demographic shifts have some effect. (Watch Jon Stewart remind O’Reilly of times when “white America” fretted about unclean immigrants called “the Irish.”) But that’s not the real explanation for what happened in California.

There is news under the news, a political revolution that ignores the chattering caste and the lobotomizing “left-right political axis.” It does bear on real differences between Red and Blue America, but not those that you think.

Care to explore what really happened?

== California’s three-part citizen rebellion ==

The stunning event was a triple whammy that swept California a few years ago, when voters rose up and voted-in a trio of constitutional changes that would:

(1) end gerrymandering and require impartial redistricting

(2) turn the general election into a run-off between the top two vote-getting candidates in the primaries, regardless of parties

(3) make those primaries open, so that all voters could pick among all candidates, choosing the pair in each race who would run-off in the fall.

2012 was the first year with clear results, which were unexpected and epochal because of how the three reforms interplay. I’ll get to all that in a minute.

Only first note this.  The anti-gerrymandering initiative was originally authored and pushed by the Californian Republican Party (CA-GOP). An act of hypocrisy, since every Red State indulges in the foul practice far more vigorously – - from Texas to Georgia to Alaska — to a degree that would embarrass even a Chicago ward heeler!  No problem. CA-GOP figured they’d take advantage of Blue Staters’ penchant for reasonableness and low levels of party loyalty, plus their ability to see how wretchedly unjust the old system was. For purely self-interested reasons, CA-GOP urged state voters to do the right and logical thing! Of course, CA-GOP’s true aim was more conniving — to rob their adversaries of an advantage in the biggest blue state.  (In fairness, the Democratic Party has tried to talk Red State voters into doing this… with zero results.)

Now I confess – I voted against the referendum, despite my long record inveighing about Gerrymandering!  I still hoped for a multi-state deal, with California dropping the practice in exchange for (say) Texas and Indiana.  That would leave neither party disadvantaged and thus…

… but of course, that never would have happened. I was wrong and the people were right. Someone had to do it first. And, in fact, California voters proved stunningly wise.

== The wisdom of three ==

Think about those triple reforms I listed above. The combined effects of the triple whammy are stunning:

1) No longer able to arrange purely safe districts for themselves, nearly all state legislators and congressfolk now have to work harder in the general election than before. Aw. Too bad.

2) Radicals of both parties were robbed of influence because now republicans in largely democratic districts can vote in the primary, the election that matters, and vice versa in GOP majority districts. Moderation was the huge winner. (And would be in Red America, if this happened there. Think about what that would mean to the radicals in the current GOP U.S. House delegation.)

3) In many cases, the result has been a general election in which two republicans face off against each other, or two democrats!  Suddenly they are interested in, and are listening to and trying to please folks who are the minority in their district. That minority transforms into tie-breakers, the king-makers.

Ponder that. For the first time, if you are in the minority party of your district, someone will listen to you anyway. Your vote will actually matter. If you are a republican in a largely democratic district, you may never have a conservative representative. But you’ll be able to tip the balance between two liberals. And they’ll know that fact. They’ll talk to you.

4) And finally, the big surprise result that no one expected. The dems picked up more seats in the Assembly, State Senate and Congress.

But… but how did the democrats do even better without gerrymandering?  That shouldn’t happen, because the districts are now fair! I will tell you how, and it should have been obvious all along.

== The surprise outcome, and what it means ==

Under gerrymandering, the ruling party jiggers districts to their own advantage. In Texas, not long ago, some were more than a hundred twisty miles long with necks less than one mile wide. (Be proud, you Republicans, be very proud.) They arrange boundaries so that there are a few tortuous districts with 90% or more democratic voters and a lot more districts with 65% republican voters. The result, in theory, should be more republican seats. That is the logic and it is why republican voters in the state go along with such a blatantly cynical and rapacious scheme. Out of partisan loyalty.

But it’s a lie!

In California, the new redistricting law replaced this system (though it had never been as horrific as Texas) with sensible, compact districts… a whole lot of which happened to be merely 55% democratic.  This meant that the local politicians could not take victory for granted, they had to work hard and woo some republicans… but the odds were still slightly in their favor, since CA has an overall demo-tilt. And this showed in a year when democrats were highly motivated to vote. They worked harder… and their party gained seats.

Now think about this result.  What it means is that gerrymandering was never what the politicians claimed it to be! A way for democrats in California or republicans in Texas to eke out a few more seats for their side.  That justification, after all, might persuade your radical Tea Party voter to shrug and go along, because Fox has him so riled up he will forgive an obvious scam (gerrymandering) because it hurts the hated other side.

But no, gerrymandering is not about party advantage, at all!

It is about reinforcing radicalism and — above all – it is a job protection racket for elected politicians. Designed to preserve safe seats and ensure that the pol needn’t ever fear a threat that voters might actually judge him, consider alternatives, or even fire him.  Just look at the results! Congress as a whole has a national approval rating of just 9%!  Yet, individual representatives in safe districts get returned again and again. This is the biggest reason.

== The key come-away lesson ==

It is possible to do everywhere what Californians have done. Banish a foul and disgusting crime against democracy that’s been committed by the entire political caste, regardless of where they stand along the largely irrelevant left-right “axis.”

Yes, there is a partisan tint to all this… voters have risen up against gerrymandering in several blue states but not a single red one, and this shows in the radical, never-compromise, manichean dogmatism of the Republican House. It shows in the fact that the not-gerrymandered U.S. Senate shifted left this election along with the overall electorate re-picking President Obama, while the gerried House only nudged a little, even in the face of 9% approval ratings for the institution.

But the partisan tint does not matter.  By any standard, gerrymandering is filth. It is crime. Its nineteenth century vileness is indefensible in the 21st. It doesn’t even make logical sense in the terms used by its defenders!

And we will all have a better America when it’s gone.

== Can we get rid of it? ==

Given the entrenchment of both partisanship and job-protection thinking among the politicians in some parts of the country, it’s hard to see this obscenity ever being negotiated away.  I am hoping that a few more blue states — notably Maryland, New Jersey and Illinois — will see citizen uprisings against gerrymandering. But the GOP has probably learned its lesson from the surprising way things turned out in California. They will be tepid, at best, and possibly help to oppose such reforms in states like New York.

No, there is just one locus for salvation and hope — one that should have stepped in ages ago to save us. The courts. Because gerrymandering is blatantly, despicably an outright effort to steal elections and votes – a guild-protection racket by a profession against its customers, deliberately repressing competition in restraint of fair trade. A scheme to disenfranchise 40% of the electorate in any state, denying them the chance, ever, of voting for a person they feel actually listens to them or might represent them.

It has exacerbated partisan radicalism, fury and impracticality in American political life. And it does even more foul things that you can read about in my older essay on the subject.

Will the courts ever throw out this blatant violation of the principle of one person, one vote?

Not while Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts and Kennedy sit on the high bench. Which is why we may just have to wait. Maybe quite a while.  Even though this whole issue has nothing to do with classic left-right, or capitalism/socialism, or liberal-conservative or any other legitimate political matter. Nor is it even about the Republican Party, whose health would likely improve a lot if California-style reforms took place across Red America.  (They are currently unable to adapt to their shellacking in the 2012 elections, because gerrymandered radicalism stands in the way of pragmatic re-evaluation.)

No, this Court won’t rule in favor of the people because… because…

…well… I honestly can’t figure any clear or logical or cogent reason why. As I’ve shown, only short-sighted fools believe anymore that gerrymandering is actually about partisan advantage. One can picture the clever – if biliously partisan – Justice Scalia finally realizing this. One can envision him accepting that there’s no justification – not even a cynical one – for the outrageously unjustifiable, and at last voting to end the crime, bringing Thomas and Alito with him. Yes, one can picture it.

Still, you know they won’t do it, as sure as day. A future court, honored by posterity, will erase this felony, a crime in which history will judge this court to be complicit.

And so — we’ll wait.




1. See the same California transition and realization, told interestingly from a more partisan democratic perspective.  As I said, the real victor in California was moderation. Hence, although the California legislature is now 2/3 democratic, the big surge came among moderates. Don’t expect compulsory Druid-worship. Or broccoli-eating mandated by Jerry Brown’s denim-levi secret police. I’ll take wagers on this.

2.  If you live in a still-gerrymandered state, you aren’t helpless! Try a lovely judo tactic. Register in whatever party “owns” your district! All democrats in republican districts should talk fellow democrats into registering republican! And vice versa for you republicans in democrat-gerried districts.  Forget labels, or which party has your loyalty nationally or by doctrine.  The election that matters to you is the primary! If enough of your neighbors do this, you’ll be able to help a moderate republican take on the radical republican incumbent. (Or the same thing in a dem-held area.) You and others who pull this trick – you will become the swing voters, the king-makers. Your vote will matter again.

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12 responses to “Gerrymandering: as it declines – surprising results

  1. sftheory1

    Awesome post!

  2. The major Republican charges I see against the California system is that Democrats/liberals were able to rig the boundary setting system despite it excluding overtly partisan input. Their argument is that false local groups of citizens with somewhat hidden partisanship triumphed. Too soon to see any of their analysis based upon the results but they are very unhappy, as they always are with California for the last two decades.

    • Gary, if that is the level at which paranoia and accusations fly, then it means we’ve already won. The residual accusations can then be hurled in court cases or the next redistricting or in the local political campaigns. And let those arenas decide if it’s just sour grapes. (Which I think it is.) In any event, I would give republicans ALL of those advantages in red states, if they’d adopt California’s laws.

      Sorry folks, I check this comments section seldom! I usually haunt the one where I cross post at

  3. Nelson Chen

    A big reason the courts can’t reasonably step in is the question of by precisely WHAT standard can the court decide something is or is not a Gerrymander. Since there are infinitely many ways to draw a bunch of districts, any map will favor some people over others, and favor some principles (e.g. competitiveness) over others (compactness, communities of interest, not splitting cities/counties). Which principles should dominate? Such is, unfortunately for reform advocates, a legislative question.

    • I have a simple answer.

      1) A pretty basic ratio of perimeter to area that should be easy to meet. Does not have to be a circle.

      2) Minimized OVERLAP between the districts for state assembly, state senate and congress. Hence, even if they gerrymanded to optimize a party’s power in one house, it will be very hard to do for the other two .

      But your complaint is facile. In several states commissions do it. I prefer my method but the commissions are preventing the horror.

      • Nelson Chen

        I certainly support reform. My whole point is that to decide to use any scheme, no matter how good, is a legislative act. Hence it can be implemented legitimately only by a legislature or initiative. Your scheme sounds very interesting. I know here in TN, there are 99 state house seats, 33 state senate seats, and 9 Congressional seats. So your scheme (or alternatively a scheme that requires say St senate districts to be composed of exactly 3 contiguous St house ones) can certainly limit the amount of mischief.

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  5. No Nelson Chen you have it backwards. The state senate seats must be arranged so that they have as LITTLE overlap with assembly seats as possible. If one house is gerried, the other finds it difficult to be and voters must renegotiate with other sets of neighbors.

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