Gerrymandering: What is It and How Does It Affect Elections?

Image showing rectangular counties.

Michigan counties are fairly rectangular,

What is Gerrymandering?

Originally, before gerrymandering, almost all districts were equally-populated rough rectangles. However, to accommodate increasing populations, districts need redrawn on a regular basis. Politicians and their parties saw the potential in drawing districts that suited themselves, which led to Gerrymandering – or boundary manipulation that favors one party over another. This means that they would select people most likely to vote for them and draw boundaries to encompass those people. Not only do politicians and their parties like to draw districts that include supporters, but they also like to reduce the impact of voters who oppose their views.

To cement their power, political parties try to delicately balance the populations within a district that is likely to vote against them. For instance, if they can include all of the people who might vote against them into one district, instead of two, then those people have less representation in the state house.


To see what I mean, imagine that we have 100 people and for each 25 people there is one representative. Let’s assume that out of the 100 people, 50 of them, or 50%, would vote for each party. If Democrats lived separate from Republicans with 25 Democrats living in each of two districts and Republicans in the other two, we should have a balanced legislature. That never happens, of course!

Instead, Democrats and Republicans live scattered across the four districts, although not randomly because neighbors often share values. Suppose that 13 Democrats live in district A, and 13 Democrats live in district B, and 10 Democrats reside in district C, and 14 Democrats reside in district D. Voters would elect three Democratic representatives (winning 13 to 12, 13 to 12 and 14 to 11) and one Republican (winning 15 to 10).

Don’t Like the Election Results? Gerrymander!

The Republicans wouldn’t like randomly losing seats. So instead, Republicans – being in power during redistricting years – moved the district borders. They ensured that 24 Democratic voters live within district A – leaving only 26 Democrats left to be distributed among the other three districts. In this case, let’s say eight Democrats live district B, eight in C and nine in D. Now, the non-rectangular districts end up with three Republican legislators elected (winning 17 to 8, 17 to 8, and 16 to 9) and only one Democrat representative (winning 24 to 1). Moreover all four representatives have confidence that they will retain their seats. If the Democrat is shortsighted and self-interested, they may not even object to the gerrymandering. What the FROAK!

Many people vote as independents, which makes gerrymandering more complicated. Independents might vote one way or another depending on the year, the candidate or the issue. To take that into account, the politicians drawing the districts like to ensure that their own district includes enough supporters to feel confident that they will be re-elected.

The Rules

Gerrymandering legislators remain unencumbered by the rules. Certainly there aren’t enough rules to insure that districts represent the opinions and views of the people fairly. One rule states that a district must be contiguous – i.e. crafted such that you can draw one continuous line around the whole district. That’s why you sometimes see a tiny goose-neck connecting a city with the rest of it’s district. District redrawers must also apportion population numbers fairly similarly between districts. The rules forbid gerrymandering politicians from considering ethnicity and religion but Right-leaning judges rarely enforce this rule at the state level. Besides being race-blind, the law charges legislators with creating compact new districts (think hexagons, circles or rectangles) without long connecting slivers or meandering monstrosities. Michigan Republicans mock this law – listen, you can hear them laughing now!

Historical Michigan Districts

Gerrymandering hadn't gone wild in 1973.

From 1873 to 1982, politicians drew districts somewhat rationally and didn’t 0verly gerrymander.

Through the years 1973 to 1982 Michigan districts weren’t too bad. The district lines in Detroit proper were a bit odd, but they made a certain amount of community sense. Districts weren’t rectangular within the city exactly, but except for district 16, if you squinted you could see rectangles and compact shapes.

In the 1983 redistricting things got a bit odder (lawmakers redraw districts every 10 years.)  Afterwards, most of the districts looked more like 1982’s district 16. In later redistricting, district shapes went downhill from there. More and more the districts stopped serving the people and began serving the two parties, usually Republicans much more than Democrats.

1983 redistricting was highly gerrymandered

1983’s redistricting lost to concept of rectangles and became very gerrymandered.


Packing and Cracking

There have been three more redistricting years in Michigan in 1993, 2003 and 2013. Each time the Republicans redrew the districts it has benefited them. Currently, conservatives get about 46% of the vote but they still manage to carry 9 out of 14 state districts (64%.) This allows them to continue gerrymandering in a vicious unbreakable circle (which would be a great shape for a district!)

Two methods used to gerrymander successfully are Packing and Cracking. Packing a district means to put as many members of a voting block, usually defined by ethnicity or religion, into one district as possible. This cedes that district to that voting block but prevents the opponent’s voters from affecting other districts. Legislators use Packing if there is a large population of a particular voting block – in Michigan, that’s usually Black voters in urban areas but it might include college votes.

Cracking means separating a voting block into two districts so that their influence is diluted such that they don’t win in either district. This is done with smaller ethnic groups to block their influence and silence their voices. In Michigan, this is usually done with Hispanic communities but also Muslim ones as well.

Absurd Districts

Gerrymandering leads to unfair representation

Absurdly gerrymandered districts have led to the true minority in Michigan controlling the legislation.

Currently, Michigan’s tri-county area suffers the most from gerrymandering. Districts 13 and 14 are the poster children for this undemocratic process. Let’s examine district 14 a bit closer (Ed. Note: It’s my district!) It includes Pontiac (population mostly Black.) Then goes SW to Farmington but doesn’t include Farmington itself (it’s over 70% White.) The district snakes east across the northern portion of Detroit until it hits the water. Finally District 14 drops down along the river to the center of Detroit (to a mostly Hispanic area).

Michigan’s 14th uses both packing and cracking to create a heavily Democratic district. Gerrymandering packs Blacks and immigrants into the district. It also cracks the Hispanic population into two less effective voting blocks delivering another district to Republicans.

How Does Gerrymandering Affect Elections?

Hey, did you read the FROAKING article? You should already know the answer to how gerrymandering affects elections. It allows the majority to cement their power even if the population becomes more liberal or conservative. In Michigan, it means that the 46% dictates the laws to the 54% who disagree with them. It is part of what I call the tyranny of the minority over the majority.

It is important to protect the rights of the minority in our country. But there is a disconnect between ensuring their needs are met, and allowing them to impose their beliefs on others.  Gerrymandering, and the Electoral College, blocks the will of the people. The Flint Water crisis is a catastrophic example of how gerrymandering’s tilting of election results affects our environment. Snyder’s usurpation of power affected the health of Michiganders harmed by his installation of Emergency Managers in Flint and Detroit. Snyder over-rode the will of the people – who voted against Emergency Managers – and got away with it. All because gerrymandering allows Republicans to be over-represented in the government. (This makes me HOP HOP HOPPING mad!)  Ultimately, the governor poisoned the people of Flint by with state provided water facilitated by this anti-democratic process.

In another article, I will explore what we can possibly do to fix Gerrymandering.

Sources: Wikipedia – maps; Ballotpedia; GovTrack; Dome Magazine;