“Behind closed doors, political operatives scrutinize the voting history of constituents to draw boundaries intended to protect incumbents or draw “safe” districts for either the Democratic or Republican parties” – Illinois Reform Commission 100-Day Report , April 29, 2009.
The Illinois Reform Commission described the practice of gerrymandering today, but with the simple change of party labels, it could just as easily describe a process that has taken place in the United States since the founding of the nation.
The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, defines Gerrymandering as “a form of redistribution in which electoral district or constituency boundaries are deliberately modified for electoral advantage.”
History of the Term
Gerrymandering comes from combining salamander and the name of Elbridge Gerry (shown at right), the governor of Massachusetts from 1810 to 1812. In 1812, Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan that was designed to benefit his political party. The term was first used in the Boston Gazette of March 26, 1812 to describe a district that the newspaper likened to the shape of a salamander. The newspaper referred to the district as a "Gerry"-mander.
However, the practice of Gerrymandering actually predates Elbridge Gerry. In 1788, Patrick Henry and his Anti-Federalist party drew the boundaries of Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District to try to keep James Madison from winning a seat in Congress.
The fact is that in virtually every country that elects representatives by districts, if those districts are drawn by the elected officials, they will be gerrymandered. Studies have placed the United States near the top as being one of the most gerrymandered democracies. (Back to Top)
How it Works
Gerrymandering uses two primary strategies to maximize the effect of an official’s supporters and minimize the effect of an official’s opponents.
This is done by “packing” and “cracking.”
“Packing” refers to the practice of concentrating as many voters in a district as possible who share similar voting tendencies.
The opposite of “packing” is “cracking.” “Cracking” can be used to split up pockets of opposition into multiple surrounding districts in order to reduce their ability to influence an election.
Packing and cracking are used in combination with one another to improve or to weaken the chances that a party’s candidates will be successful.
The use of each technique is determined by the voting demographics of the targeted area and success relies on the “wasted vote” effect.
In essence, mapmakers want to create districts where the preferred candidates can win by a comfortable, but not excessive margin.
A “packed” district, for example, may yield consistently winning margins of 75% or more for candidates of one party. But, since a candidate only needs 51% of the vote to win, much of the “extra” margin is wasted – the voters don’t really have any genuine influence over the election because the results are pre-determined.
In a “cracked” district the goal is to dilute the influence of like-minded voters. For example, a Republican-leaning area might have sufficient voters to influence an election in a single district, but by splitting those voters among two or three different districts, their influence is diluted and their votes are also wasted.
Using computers, partisan mapmakers try out various scenarios using both packing and cracking to create comfortable, but not excessive, margins of victory for preferred candidates, while diluting the supporters of candidates from the opposite party.
No party can ever draw a map that will give them 100 percent of the available seats, so most gerrymandered maps contain a few “forfeit” seats – districts that they know the other party will consistently win.
Ironically, this practice can actually make individual members of a minority party complacent in gerrymandering. If an official represents one of the “forfeit” districts, they don’t have to worry about a serious challenge from the other party because they are already assured of a comfortable re-election margin. (Back to Top)
Traditionally, there are three primary ways to avoid or reduce the impact of gerrymandering for political purposes.
One is proportional representation, which allocates representation on the
basis of a party’s total vote.
The second is to simply refuse to redraw district boundary lines.
The third is to hand over the redrawing to an independent, non-political third party.(Back to Top)
Proportional Representation in Illinois
Prior to 1980, members of the Illinois House were selected by a modified form of proportional representation known as cumulative voting. Under the cumulative voting model, three House members were elected from each district. Each political party was limited to no more than two candidates per district, so the system guaranteed that every district was represented by at least one person from a non-dominant political party. (For example, most Chicago districts had two Democrats and one Republican, while most suburban districts had two Republicans and one Democrat).
However, the “Cutback Amendment,” pushed by (now governor) Pat Quinn, reduced the size of the Illinois House by one-third and eliminated cumulative voting in favor of single-member districts. The impact of the cutback amendment has been debated for decades, but many political observers believe cumulative voting had a moderating effect on the intense partisanship that has characterized Illinois politics for much of the state’s history.
Supporters of cumulative voting point out that the system guaranteed each party would have roughly one-third of its House members representing areas dominated by the other party. That meant that a substantial percentage of the Democrat caucus was comprised of legislators who shared similar values with their more conservative Republican counterparts in suburban and downstate communities. On the other hand, Republicans elected from the city of Chicago were sensitive to the concerns of their urban constituencies.
Nonetheless, cumulative voting was abandoned with the approval of the cutback amendment, and Illinois adopted a strictly partisan system of drawing legislative districts.(Back to Top)
Refusing to Redraw Legislative Districts
For at least the first half of the 20th Century, Illinois (like many other states) avoided redistricting concerns simply by refusing to redraw legislative district boundaries.
Instead, politicians simply left old boundaries in place and ignored population changes.
In Illinois, legislative district boundaries set in 1910 remained in place into the 1940s. The result was that the 7th Congressional district in the Chicago area had 914,000 residents, while a district in southern Illinois had only 112,116 residents.
This system was challenged in the case of Colegrove v. Green. Colegrove, a political scientist at Northwestern University, filed suit alleging that the uneven nature of congressional and legislative districts violated the U.S. Constitution’s “equal protection” clause.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which both acknowledged the inequity of the system, but declined to take action. The court held that reapportionment was a “political question” and therefore out of the realm of the courts, since it violates the separation of powers for the Court to interfere with the authority of the legislative branch in political matters. Instead, the Court urged legislatures to address the problem.
It was advice that was ignored for nearly 20 more years. Finally, in 1962 the Supreme Court effectively reversed itself in Baker v. Carr. In a separate case, one year later, the court announced its intent to follow the principle of “one person, one vote.”(Back to Top)
An Independent Third Party
No longer able to simply ignore redistricting, the framers of the 1970 Illinois Constitution adopted a procedure that they felt would force bi-partisan cooperation in redrawing state and congressional districts.
They adopted a “sudden death playoff” system that they imagined would be so odious to the political parties that no one would risk invoking the system. The framers greatly underestimated the self-interest that would guide political leaders over the next three decades.
Instead of avoiding the option, in every redistricting since the adoption of the 1970 constitution, political leaders have elected to invoke the “winner take all” option. What the framers of the constitution thought would serve as a incentive for compromise has instead become an impediment to agreement.
In sharp contrast to the Illinois model, Iowa adopted a system that takes the decision-making authority almost completely out of the hands of elected officials and hands it over to an independent, non-partisan committee.
The Illinois Reform Commission, explained that in Iowa “a non-partisan Legislative Service Bureau (the ‘LSB’) uses a computer software program to apply specific criteria to census data to generate a proposed legislative map. The LSB submits the map to the state legislature for consideration and a vote. If the legislature rejects the map, the LSB revises it and submits up to two more proposals. If the legislature does not approve one of the first three plans that the LSB proposes, the legislature must itself propose and approve a plan by September 1 or the State Supreme Court will take responsibility for creation of a plan.”
The Illinois Reform Commission based its proposal for Illinois on the Iowa plan described above. Building on the work of the Illinois Reform Commission and using testimony from statewide hearings, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and other drafters of the most recent reform plan, took great pains to propose a plan that would protect minority rights, preserve communities of interest in Illinois, prevent partisan Gerrymandering and assure public input into the process. (Back to Top)