Gerrymandering at Work looks at the time-honored practice of Gerrymandering congressional districts for maximum partisan advantage.

To make the concept clearer, consider a state with 8 million people and 12 congressional districts, for simplicity. If half the people are Democrats and half the people are Republicans, you might get 12 CDs, each with, say, 300,000 Democrats and 300,000 Republicans and competitive elections (assuming 800,000 children in the state). On some other planet maybe.

In reality, if the Democrats control the state government, they might draw eight districts with 350,000 Democrats and 250,000 Republicans, ensuring eight seats in Congress by margins of 58% to 42%. The remaining people would be stuffed into districts with 200,000 Democrats and 400,000 Republicans each. If the Republicans got to draw the map, they would do it precisely the other way. Either way, the guys drawing the map could be sure of 8 of the 12 seats.

Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts - Maps The maps of some of the more eggregiously Gerrymandered districts (thumnailed right) are truly astounding. As Taegan Goddard observes, districts like these are “one of the main reasons so few congressional seats are in play during this year’s elections.”

While the Supreme Court has established numerous restrictions on how state legislatures may draw districts–this, despite the Constitution rather clearly giving state legislatures plenary power over this matter–the only one that matters when race qua race is not a primary motivating factor is that each district within a state must have nearly identical population. If, however, a litigant can demonstrate that race was a motivating factor–whether to diminish or concentrate the voting power of racial minorities protected under the 14th Amendment–then a host of other factors come into play.

It would make a lot more sense to have these lines drawn by objective professionals with no stake in the outcome, taking into account longstanding geographical, county, municipal, and other logical boundaries. A few states have delegated the process with that goal in mind. Alas, taking the politics out of politics is too much to ask and most state legislatures have tried to use their power over redistricting to maximum political advantage.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I used to live in a district, drawn by the Texas legislature when the democrats controlled it, where the republican won with 90+ percent of the race. So using you example, I can point to a case where it was closer to 50K D and 550K R in a couple of districts and 350K D, 250K R in 10 other districts.

    One good test to see if the state is gerrymandered is to compare the house party make up to the state wide vote on governor, senator and president. If there is even close to balance, then it probably isn’t gerrymandered. If you see one party winning all the state wide races, but a majority of the house seats going to the other party, then expect to see gerrymandering. That was the situation we had in Texas before the mid decade redrawing.

    Part of the problem is that if humans are involved, its hard to not make this partisan some how. And if you take humans out, you introduced other problems. An example is the mechanical approach to re-districting. You first divide the state into equal sized precincts of no more than X number of voters (500, 1000, whatever is going to make sense for the state). Then starting at the precinct at the farthest north-east point of the state, you start to build congressional districts by aggregating the precincts to the south and west. You first add the adjoining precinct that is to the south and furthest east, then the next mutually adjoining precinct to the south and west, and so on until the first precinct is completely surrounded is completely surrounded. Then add the next precinct to this group of precincts that is adjoining, to the south and furthest east. Keep adding until the district is done. Then start with the next precinct that would have been added and continue. A computer could do this in minutes once the precincts are drawn. If you further make it that no more than two precincts can cross a city boundary per city or county boundary, you minimize the ability to gerrymander the precincts. The problem is that you would then have “media markets” get chopped up, making it harder to campaign.

  2. Steve says:

    Drawing legislative districts is a poltical act. We vote for politicians who make those decisions. I am not interested in a system where neutral third parties exercise political power.

    This is another issue where some people are dissatisfied with the results of a democratic process. Thus they turn to non-democratic alternatives; courts, panels of “neutral experts”.

    Voters can hold politicians accountable. It may be tedious, it may be lengthy but eventually the voters get their licks in.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m only familiar with the history and politics behind one of the districts in your map, James: the Illinois 4th. That’s Luis Guitierrez’s district and without its gerrymandering the city of Chicago, despite its large Hispanic population, would have no Hispanic congressmen. That’s a gross oversimplification of a dozen years’ worth of lawsuits and wrangling but there it is.

    Our current system is one that has been designed to maximize incumbent security. Surprise! It’s also a tremendous example of how political cartels work: the two major parties have, essentially, agreed to divide the market between them.

    As far as I’m concerned the only real solutions are just as impossible as your proposal of “leaving it to the professionals” (do professionals have no interests?). Quis custodiet ipsos etc. The solutions are to reduce the payoff for gerrymandering by substantially increasing the number of congressional districts and reducing the influence of the federal government. T’ain’t gonna happen but it’s fun to dream.

  4. MM says:

    A minor quibble on your listing of CO-01 as one of the most gerrymandered districts. It matches up almost perfectly with the City and County of Denver as seen here. I wouldn’t consider that to be a problem at all.

  5. just me says:

    I would prefer to see districts controlled more by geography of the state than anything else. I look at some districts in some states and I wonder how in the world they make sense.

  6. James Joyner says:

    MM: Interesting on Denver’s odd shape. It must have annexed territory over time unless there’s some obvious topographical feature I’m missing.

  7. MM says:

    You’re exactly right James. The big parcel to the northeast was annexed for Denver International Airport and the road to it.

    As anyone who has ever flown into or out of Denver knows, the airport is not located remotely close to any business districts (when it was built, it wasn’t close to anything. Now there are some housing developments sprouting up). The little area to the southwest was done, IIRC, in order to annex some mostly commercial developments.