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Editorial: We all lose when gerrymandered districts lead to lopsided representation

Editorial: We all lose when gerrymandered districts lead to lopsided representation

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Much of the deadlock and partisan hostility in Congress results from voting districts drawn to cut down on the number of swing districts and increase the number of landslide districts in favor of the party drawing the boundaries. Political parties compete in swing districts, but not in landslide districts. That encourages candidates in landslide districts to move to extremes to satisfy people who are passionate about specific issues and vote in the primaries.

This makes for increasingly lopsided politics and is bad for participatory democracy. The prospect of party entrenchment increases with each voting cycle. Partisan extremes inevitably contribute to greater polarization and diluted voter power for the minority party. A Pew Research Center study says the 113th Congress was second only to the 112th in being the least productive in modern history. The main reason? Gerrymandered districts created after the 2010 census tied Congress in knots.

The result in Missouri is that for the past six years, Republican candidates for state representative in the rural northeastern part of the state have had no Democratic opposition, and Democratic candidates in parts of St. Louis and Kansas City have had no Republican opposition, according to an Associated Press analysis of elections.

The Supreme Court has never imposed limits on the practice of drawing partisan legislative districts, although it has struck down voting districts as racial gerrymanders. In several cases concerning legislative maps, the justices have said that packing black voters into a few districts dilutes their voting power in violation of the Constitution.

The court will consider in the fall whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution in an appeal of a decision that struck down the legislative map for Wisconsin, drawn by the state assembly after Republicans gained control of state government in 2010.

New voting maps are drawn every decade, following the census. The public might think mapmakers aim for even population distribution when drawing districts, but that’s not how it’s done. In the Wisconsin case before the Supreme Court, the math manipulation and formulas used to figure out how Republicans could capture 60 percent of the Legislature’s 99 seats, while getting less than half the statewide vote, looks like an equation in quantum mechanics.

A three-judge federal panel struck down the map and agreed with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the Republican mapmakers had engaged in “cracking” and “packing” the districts. Cracking means to divide a party’s supporters among multiple districts so that they fall short of a majority in each one, and packing means to concentrate a party’s backers in a few districts that they win by overwhelming margins.

Regardless of which side emerges dominant when voting districts are gerrymandered, the gridlock crippling Congress and diluted voter representation only helps diminish public confidence in our democracy. When that happens, everyone loses.

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