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Gerrymandering is about to become a front-burner issue

Regular readers of this space have ascertained that your humble and obedient ink-stained wretch is at the less-enthralled end of the spectrum regarding the U.S. system of politics and government.

In its time and place, it was an important breakthrough in the development of democratic forms of government, but its performance over recent decades and the comparison to things that work better in other systems leave your wretch viewing the constitutional plan, as evolved, as more and more sub-optimal and yet, so rigid and difficult to reform.

Today’s example: Gerrymandering.

It’s possible to overstate how big a deal it is, but modern technology has made it easier and more reliable to gerrymander districts for the partisan advantage of those who draw the lines. And a looming Supreme Court case will soon make it a front-burner issue.

In 2016, Republican candidates for all 435 seats in the U.S. House received 49.1 percent of all votes nationwide, compared to 48.0 for Democrats. Other parties or independent candidates received the remaining 2.9 percent.

If the House seats were divided precisely according to the breakdown of the major-party vote, the current House would be composed of 220 Republicans to 215 Democrats. That would be a margin so small that the relative moderates in both party caucuses would certainly hold tremendous leverage and the likelihood of bipartisan compromise would probably increase.

Instead (assuming, as seems likely, that the one current vacancy, in Utah, is filled by a Republican in the special election scheduled for November), Republicans control the House by 241-194.

So 49 percent of the total vote, or 51 percent of the two-party vote, yields 55.4 percent of the seats. The gap isn’t exactly huge, but it makes a big difference.

An illustrative example

To illustrate the difference between a House with a 47-member advantage versus a five-member advantage, consider: 20 of the most moderate Republican members of the House, many of them representing districts that Hillary Clinton carried last year, voted against the so-called American Health Care Act, a bill that the Congressional Budget Office projected would increase the uninsured population by 23 million.

In a House of 241-194, the bill passed anyway (although, as you know, it has made no further progress toward becoming law). In a House with a five-member advantage for Republicans, those 20 moderates would have sunk the bill or it would have had to be adjusted to reflect their objections. Perhaps it would have created the possibility, which I discussed Monday, of a bipartisan centrist plan for adjusting the Affordable Care Act, rather than destroying it.

Of course, as you also know, the Trump-Ryan American Health Care Act has made no further progress. And the Senate version of the bill is now on life support. But this is about the power of the gerrymander.

In the interest of keeping it honest, the difference between the current partisan makeup of the U.S. House and one that more accurately reflects the overall partisan preferences of the country is not all about gerrymandering. Several factors — other than the precise lines of congressional districts, which are engineered to help whichever party has power over drawing them — help explain why one party or the other might end up with more or fewer seats.

Both parties adept at it

But just as clearly, gerrymandering is a powerful tool for creating a U.S. House that does not accurately reflect the views of the electorate. Recent analytical and computerized tools have made it more powerful. Both parties (but perhaps the Republicans have been the recent champions at these skills and tactics) have become more adept at drawing lines to maximize their yield of U.S. House seats when they have the power to control the map-drawing exercise. We all know this. And it goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. In fact the term “gerrymander” derives from the name Elbridge Gerry and the shape of a salamander.

Gerry was a Massachusetts politician of the founding era. He attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (although in the end he refused to sign the proposed Constitution and campaigned against its ratification). He eventually served as governor of Massachusetts and as vice president under James Madison. During his governor days, Gerry helped create, for partisan gain, a Massachusetts House district map so tortured that one of the districts resembled a salamander. Get it? Gerry-salamander. The world “gerrymander” was born.

1812 political cartoon
Boston Centinel/Elkanah Tisdale
Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Gov. Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists.

And the gerrymandering of congressional district maps has been treated as an ugly but legal practice ever since. With one fairly recent exception: The Supreme Court made clear over recent years that a clear use of race in drawing districts was unconstitutional. Most recently, the court ruled 5-3 in May against the 2011 redistricting map of North Carolina. The court found that the Republican-controlled Legislature drew a map that packed most of the black residents into two strangely shaped districts so as to maximize Republican control of most of the other districts. The court decided that using race this way was unconstitutional.

But it has never ruled that using less racialized map-drawing tricks to advantage the party in control of the maps was unconstitutional. And a case testing that rule (racial considerations no, partisan considerations yes) is scheduled for the upcoming term.

The Wisconsin case

It happens to come from our neighboring state of Wisconsin, and it isn’t about the congressional map, but the map of legislative districts. The plaintiffs argue that the Republican legislative majority that drew the 2011 Wisconsin map of legislative districts used their map-drawing power to advantage their own party in a way that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association. The court has never taken a redistricting challenge on those bases before.

The case is titled Gill V. Whitford. Keep your eye on it if you find this interesting. Oral arguments are expected later this year. Based on previous cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy (big surprise) is expected to be the key swing vote.

But in closing, just to loop back to where I started, other younger democracies, with the opportunity of learning from our example, have come up with a lot of ways to elect a national legislature without relying so heavily on district maps drawn by potentially biased partisans. Some of those ways are summarized at the bottom of this Washington Post “Monkey Cage blog” piece, which also sets up the Gill case at the top.

The Post piece mentions several different methods but first one is the most obvious. To quote the Monkey bloggers, who are political scientists:

In most other long-term democracies, a politically neutral body draws the new district maps — perhaps a quasi-judicial body or nonpartisan administrative board or commission. The redistricting bodies of some countries, such as New Zealand, include representatives of the major parties.

But the more common pattern is to explicitly exclude anyone with partisan connections, as is true in Canada and India. In Britain, the ‘redistribution of parliamentary constituencies’ is carried out by a nonpartisan Boundary Commission. Parties can object to the commission’s redistricting recommendations, but it’s purely a consultation; their overall influence is limited. In some long-term democracies, such as Britain, legislatures must approve the new electoral maps that have been drawn by independent bodies, but this is typically a formality. 

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/09/2017 - 09:48 am.


    With Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, I don’t see the gerrymandering issue going anywhere. Elections do have consequences.

  2. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 08/09/2017 - 10:11 am.

    Big problem indeed

    But votes stolen thru gerrymandering and voter suppression are still less consequential than the tens of millions of non-voters who are sick of BOTH parties pandering to the rich and powerful instead of fixing our broken economy.

    Dow Jones 22000 condemns both parties. Trump broke the Republican Party and they won. We can only hope someone quick breaks the Democratic Party before we see even more gerrymandering and voter suppression.

    People will vote again once they see real answers instead of the usual beltway lies.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/09/2017 - 12:57 pm.


      You’re assuming that the main reason for our low voter turnout is disgust with the political process, rather than an acknowledgement that (as a result of gerrymandering) most congressional districts are not politically competitive, making voting pointless.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/09/2017 - 11:05 am.

    Gorsuch factor

    As I understand it, Justice Kennedy has hinted that he will vote in support of holding partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional in the right case, which Gill v. Whitford seems to be in every sense. The Wisconsin case represents the best chance for the Supreme Court to expand the “one person-one vote” principle beyond strictly racial grounds to include gerrymandering for partisan control purposes. Any decision on legislative redistricting is going to be close. Some members of this Supreme Court don’t believe in judicial intervention in elections (unless it’s to help their candidate win the Presidency). So, if the Supreme Court upholds the lower court, it’s going to be 5-4 with Justice Kennedy being the swing vote, as Eric wrote.

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/09/2017 - 11:33 am.

    Gerrymandering is good thing.

    Grouping like minded people together for purposes of representation is just plain common sense. I was effectively disenfranchised for the period of time I lived in St. Paul.

    Every week my “representative”, Betty McCollum, embaressed and outraged me. My letters and email were ignored and I was even turned away from a public forum she held at a union HQ. But the worst was when she claimed to be speaking for “Minnesotans”…she doesnt even speak for a sizable minority in her district.

    I’m sure lefties in St. Cloud felt the same with Michelle Bachmann.

    Everyone deserves to be represented, anything that empowers citizens should be embraced and celebrated.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/09/2017 - 01:01 pm.

      So, you’re arguing that

      political minorities should be able to overrule majorities of citizens.
      Absent gerrymandering, representatives would speak for the majority of citizens in their districts, or they would not be re-elected. That’s democracy.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/09/2017 - 01:02 pm.

      And in the worst case

      you are free to move to a district where you would feel better represented.

    • Submitted by David LaPorte on 08/09/2017 - 01:10 pm.

      Packing and cracking

      There are two strategies for gerrymandering. “Packing” concentrates members of one party in single districts to dilute their influence in others. In contrast, “cracking” distributes them into other districts, where they will be in a distinct minority. Both are perversions of the democratic process.

      Homogeneous districts (which result from packing) where everyone thinks alike and aligns with their representatives may be comfortable, but that is not what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind. That creates echo chambers, where group-think reigns and ideas are rarely questioned. We need to learn to talk (and listen) to each other, not simply surround ourselves with like-minded people who think that same thoughts that we do.

      It’s a fundamental principle of democracy that the government should accurately reflect the political leanings of the population that it governs. The entire purpose of gerrymandering is to tilt the government in the favor of one party, away from fair representation. While gerrymandering may make some people more comfortable (particularly if they’re members of the party that gains unfair power), it is totally undemocratic.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/09/2017 - 01:12 pm.


      You have the right to vote for a representative. You do not have the right to a representative who reflects your exact opinions. If your candidate does not win, you have the right to kvetch about it all you like, or you can move someplace where the locals agree with you.

      You were not “effectively disenfranchised” when you lived in St. Paul. If you had the right to vote, you were as enfranchised as anyone else.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/09/2017 - 01:40 pm.

        “…you can move someplace where the locals agree with you.”

        You’re right, and in my case, I did, and happily. But gerrymandering accomplishes the same thing without having the upheaval; as long as the neighbors in your immediate environs are suitable, naturally.

        In my example, McCollum’s district was redrawn to include a vast swath of areas where her brand of politics are anethema, but because it also includes St. Paul, those poor ex-urban folks are forced to suffer her indignities.

        They are, as I was, effectively disenfranchised in that there is no way their vote will ever give them the representative they deserve.

        Gerrymandering based upon immutable traits is unconstitutional, as it should be (would it ever be pandering like that would be similarly banned!). Gathering like minded folks together is, or should be, as perfectly legal as it is morally correct.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/10/2017 - 09:39 am.

          And There You Have It

          We’re all going to move to our little enclaves of like-minded, suitable, neighbors. We won’t have to listen to anyone else’s opinion or engage in any kind of constructive debate, because we already agree. Keep building those bubbles, people!

          “In my example, McCollum’s district was redrawn to include a vast swath of areas where her brand of politics are anethema, but because it also includes St. Paul, those poor ex-urban folks are forced to suffer her indignities.” The poor snowflakes. I’m sure there’s a safe place for them, with suitable neighbors.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/10/2017 - 01:36 pm.


            Many folks have already moved into those bubbles thanks to partisan news sources, blog sources, FB Friend choices, etc… This has resulted in the elected politicians being further separated… Maybe the natural result is everyone physically moving into like minded communities? 🙂

          • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/10/2017 - 01:44 pm.

            “The poor snowflakes.”Life’s

            “The poor snowflakes.”

            Life’s hardly worth living without constructive debate, thoughtful insights and such.

            Still, one might understand why some snowflakes might choose not to have to engage such deep thinking every day with the neighbors.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/10/2017 - 02:49 pm.

              Safe Places All Around!

              There are things to discuss with the neighbors besides Benghazi, missing e-mails, and who’s using which public bathroom.

              Do you give prospective neighbors a test before you decide if you want to live near them? Or do you have other ways of determining whether they’re “suitable?”

              • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 08/10/2017 - 05:15 pm.

                Kind of. If during our the 10 minutes I detect a smug sense of superiority, absent any evidence of intellectual capacity, I ask where the nearest Volvo dealership is. If they know, I move on.

      • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 08/09/2017 - 03:09 pm.

        Representative representatives

        A voter ought to have the a decent chance to elect a representative who represents many or most of her/his opinions.

        If we must have districts, we could elect multiple representatives so different groups can each elect a one who aligns with their ideas. That’s not a new idea; it’s been used in Illinois, for example.

        Or we could elect federal representatives statewide using, for example, proportional representation, a voting method that allows different groups to elect representative representatives. That is used in various forms in most democracies around the world, except the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada and a few others.

        Of course, Congress in its finite wisdom barred options like those in 1967 (2 US Code section 2).

        And the Minnesota Constitution bars such options for legislators (Article IV, Section 3).

        So Mr. Holbrook is correct to this extent: You don’t have a right to a representative representative.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/10/2017 - 09:09 am.

          It’s called

          representative democracy.

          • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 08/10/2017 - 12:52 pm.

            What it actually is

            for too many people is unrepresentative democracy.

            Too many districts are uncompetitive because of gerrymandering. Anybody can tell you who’ll win the next election, even if there’s no candidate yet, by knowing which party’s candidate won the last election.

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/11/2017 - 03:14 pm.


              I think that what you want is a state of anarchy, not a democratic republic.

              • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 08/12/2017 - 02:28 pm.

                Real representation

                You don’t appear to understand how proportional representation elections (PR) work. Germany, Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand — to name a handful of democracies — all use PR to elect their representatives, and they’re as far from anarchies as one could imagine.

                Being a Republican voter in Minneapolis or a non-Republican voter in the 6th CD (Emmer’s), e.g., and wanting an elected representative who supports some of the same positions as you do isn’t anarchy.

                These days, the term “Representative” is just a title most of the time, not a descriptive word.

    • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 08/09/2017 - 06:30 pm.

      Bachmann was my rep

      Before the most recent redistricting, Woodbury was in the 6th and Bachmann dragged us along for the ride in the far-flung district that stretched up to Stearns County and the right-wing I-94 commuter corridor. I am glad to have Betty as my representative now – she actually knows the issues. Bachmann railed about spiral light bulbs – that’s embarrassing.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/09/2017 - 05:55 pm.

    ” a politically neutral body”

    “a politically neutral body” – I have rarely met a person who would qualify for such a group. Well – I could propose several names – but they could not pass the scrutiny of the readers of MinnPost to preforms such a political task. And the opposite would probably be true.

    If we could find such individuals to be part of this “drawing lines” group – we must make sure they have the proper representations regarding race, gender, trans-gender, education, economic status, gay, straight, private sector, public sector, and religion. Of course there are a multitude of other factors that need to be considered in order to be a member of this group. If not – they too will be attacked, maybe “shut-down”, and resisted.( OK -taken to court)

    Then – who would appoint such “a politically neutral body?” They too must meet the above qualifications.

    As our society plunges toward greater intolerance, political correctness, it will be reflected in our political representatives.

    I think the only solution is to elect people of character – but we cannot agree what are the ingredients of character. A difficult dilemma with no easy solutions. Democracy is never easy, but I am always hopeful.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/10/2017 - 05:02 pm.

      As Churchill said

      Americans will always do the right thing,
      after trying everything else.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/10/2017 - 05:39 pm.

      Partisan bias

      Postulating that there’s no such thing as a “nonpartisan group” or person sounds to me like postulating that all people are motivated only by selfishness or greed. It may be safe to presume without evidence to the contrary that any given person (or group of persons) unknown are going to be motivated only by their basest instincts. But one reason I think our republic is tottering (or at least is seeming to) is because some great number of us have raised this presumption to a point of principle, along with the attitude “only I am right and those I agree with who I know are right because they agree with me.”

      But consider: since 2000, legislative boundaries have been drawn by an ad hoc commission appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court comprised of retired Minnesota judges. HF 246 introduced in the last legislative session would have codified this practice and provided for the appointment of a panel of retired judges none of whom have served in any partisan elected office with the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court making a deciding appointment. HF 246 did not establish ny qualifications you suggested might have to be included. Anyway, these are not relevant to drawing district boundaries to prevent gerrymandering. HF 246 established standards for drawing boundaries including a standard for making each district “competitive”. Maybe it’s too much to hope for that any incumbent wants their district being redrawn to make it “competitive” and maybe it’s not possible. But this bill I think made a good faith effort to define a process by which the bad faith evidenced in the Wisconsin redistricting case can be avoided.

      Some in the Minnesota GOP wanted a process like Wisconsin’s since HF 314 also introduced in the last session specifically excluded any such independent commission, making the drawing of legislative boundaries up to the legislative majority. Neither HF 246 nor HF 314 went anywhere but 2018 is certain to see a reprise of this issue.

      I can understand your objection because in one way all of our election laws have been written to perpetuate the two party duopoly. Or to put it another way, to prevent any third, fourth or other number of start-up parties gaining any kind of foothold at any level of government. But if we assume that’s not changing any time soon, I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to assume nonpartisan people or groups of people can’t be found to make elections fair and ‘competitive” at least in every district.

  6. Submitted by Mike martin on 08/14/2017 - 11:51 pm.

    Even judges make mistakes

    In the 2010 MN redistricting, which was done by retired MN judges; they didn’t always get it right. In Mpls. several neighborhood including mine were split into 2 different senate districts.

    There was a lot of yelling & screaming at the judges by Mpls. residents for for ignoring neighborhood boundaries. Questioning the judges intelligence in language not suitable for this publication.

    In one case I believe they even split a building into 2 districts. Why should your next door neighbor be in one district & your in a different district?

  7. Submitted by Mike martin on 08/15/2017 - 12:01 am.

    Keith Ellison

    Rep. Kieth Ellison bragged that they ran all the republicans out of his district. Which is true, the Dems in Mpls. go out of their way to make republican feel unwelcome. Mpls. is not the welcoming city it claims to be if you are not a liberal democrat. Many are very clear they don’t want republicans as friends.

    The only way to make Ellison’s district for republicans is bus half the democrats to a different district (LOL)

    Americans are voting with their feet. They are moving as never before into districts that are either heavily dem or heavily GOP. After the 1960 redistricting, there were many more competitive district than there are today

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/15/2017 - 11:08 am.

      Running the Republicans Out of Town

      “Which is true, the Dems in Mpls. go out of their way to make republican feel unwelcome. Mpls. is not the welcoming city it claims to be if you are not a liberal democrat.” That is nonsense. The Republicans ran themselves out of town.

      Minneapolis has long been known as an LGBTQ friendly city. Tell me, what party has done everything in their power recently to block or reverse the rights of non-heterosexuals, or to protect those who would discriminate against them? How about Republican attitudes on race and justice (there’s a fellow named Tony Cornish who has much to say about this)? What about their explicit strategy of pushing rural interests over urban interests? If they are trying to win over hearts and minds of city folks, they’re going about it in a poor way.

      Arne Carlson represented a neighborhood in Minneapolis throughout his legislative career. The fact that you are, even as you reading this, sneering at my mention of a RINO tells you all you need to know about Minneapolis Republicans.

  8. Submitted by Deb Blakeslee on 08/29/2017 - 04:21 pm.

    Gerrymandering is a MOOT point

    Being gerrymandered into, or out of, a district would be a moot point IF our elected officials represented us regardless of partisan affiliation – ours or theirs.

    People gerrymandered OUT of a district STILL have someone elected to represent them.

    The real problem is that our elected officials (of either party) don’t address our SHARED human concerns.

    Heck, they don’t even ask us what our concerns are, nor identify root causes and potential solutions, let alone address them. That’s a problem!!!

    I went door-to-door and asked 100 of my Tacoma, WA neighbors what they wanted their elected officials to work on. I bet as HUMANS in any party, you probably share some of their concerns (see below).

    During 2016, under 7% of the 1,221 policies or laws passed at 8 levels of government had addressed any of my neighbors’ concerns (I didn’t include federal and city civil service). THAT makes me furious!!!

    Candidates told me they WERE asking people’s concerns (100+ respondents out of 434 running for any office in King County’s 2015 local races (Seattle area) and 57 respondents out of 475 candidates running for a state, federal or county race in 2016 in WA State).

    I find that hard to believe, especially when only 2 out of 108 residents in 3 differing communities said that a candidate had stopped by in 2016 (I think they were mistaken as none of their neighbors saw a candidate).

    Here are the concerns that my 100 Tacoma, WA neighbors told me (out of over 300 comments) in October, 2016 that they wanted their elected officials to work on, in order of most-mentioned (both main categories and within categories):

    POLITICIANS: they don’t care about us or understand our concerns, they don’t respond and communicate with us, and they don’t represent us but represent their wealthy friends.

    PUBLIC EDUCATION: improve academics, fund education, school bus safety, mental health, and nutrition.

    POLICE / CRIME: what do they protect and who do they serve, plethora of crime, and resolve officers’ racial prejudices.

    ROADWAY MAINTENANCE / SAFETY: fix my street’s potholes, and safety / accessibility.

    TAX COLLECTION / SPENDING: effective spending, lower taxes, and lower spending.

    COST OF LIVING / LIVING WAGE JOBS / ECONOMY: too expensive, system favors wealthy, create living wage jobs, and economy.

    HOMELESSNESS: help them / fix the causes of homelessness (this was from people living in homes), and homeless are littering my street (only 2 comments).

    PERSONAL INTERACTIONS: discrimination / equity / bullying, abortion, leadership, and other.

    SAFETY: general safety, noise, environment, loiterers, food-GMOs, street trees, and privacy.

    INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: identify conflict exit strategies / declared wars, maintain U.S. borders / define who immigrants are, and spend military funding effectively.

    DRUGS: reduce usage (addictions), and other.

    PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: efficient / effective system, and other.

    SOCIAL SECURITY / MEDICARE / MEDICAID / DISABILITY / VETERANS: cost of living and healthcare for seniors, better run VA and SS, don't mess with SS and Medicare and where are veterans’disability percentages, and I need a wheelchair ramp on my street.

    GOVERNMENT: responsiveness, ethics, needs improving, and other.

    HEALTHCARE: costs, and effectiveness.









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