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Gerrymandering and partisan division in the U.S., as seen by a British-based paper

If one party controls the state, its political manipulators are expected to design district boundaries once every decade to maximize their party’s ultimate yield. 

A map of the fifth congressional district from 2018 is marked with a "LOVE" sticker in the campaign office for then-candidate Ilhan Omar.
A map of the fifth congressional district from 2018 is marked with a "LOVE" sticker in the campaign office for then-candidate Ilhan Omar.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

I’m often impressed with the insightful coverage of U.S. politics by The Guardian, the British-based paper, and I pass along a recent Guardian analysis of gerrymandering: the practice of drawing boundaries of U.S. House districts in ways that benefit whichever party is doing the drawing.

The full piece is here on the Guardian’s site, and if you don’t want to bother with my summary, go ahead and click through and read the whole thing.

Written by U.S.-based Guardian reporter Sam Levine, who specializes in issues of voting rights, it cuts to the chase, starting out:

“When millions of American voters head to the polls this autumn to vote for congressional candidates, the vast majority of their votes won’t matter at all.”

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It’s a bit blunt, but it gets the point made more efficiently than most gerrymandering explainers.

The vast majority of U.S. House races occur within district lines that favor one party or the other by a large enough margin that the outcome is in little or no doubt. If one party controls the state, its political manipulators are expected to design district boundaries once every decade to maximize their party’s ultimate yield. 

Perhaps slightly less obvious, this starts with packing the other party’s voters into districts that their party is already destined to carry. The “extra” votes beyond what’s needed to carry the district are “wasted,” because Party A doesn’t get any benefit out of carrying the district 90-10, but those “wasted” votes won’t be a problem when it comes time to create a whole bunch of districts where your own party has a solid but less overwhelming advantage. I hope that’s clear. 

If Republicans are in control, the name of the game is to pack all the Democratic voters possible into as few districts as possible. Once a small number of 90-10 blue districts have soaked up most of the Democratic voters, it’s easy to create a substantially larger number of Republican districts that your party can carry by comfortable 60-40 or 55-45 margins.

If you do it just right, not only does this process help the party drawing the boundaries get more seats than it otherwise might, it also contributes to polarization. It also distorts the incentive for incumbents to seek middle ground on issues. As Levin put it:

“Instead of worrying about appealing to [moderate swing] voters during a general election, candidates are pushed to the extremes of their parties, becoming more focused on fending off primary challengers. It also discourages compromise and bipartisanship, instead incentivizing politicians to brandish their ideological bonafides.”

Maybe this analysis is old hat to you. I’ve heard it before, but I thought Levine did a good job for those who haven’t thought about the subtler evils of gerrymandering in a while. If you’d like to read the full piece, I hope you can access it via the link at the top.