Gerrymandering is the bug in the operating system of America.

If you don’t speak computer, we’ll translate:

A computer’s operating system is the software that runs the machine’s core functions.

In the case of American democracy, the analogy would be to the Constitution.

A bug is an error, flaw or fault in software that produces incorrect or unintended results.

The most damaging kind of bug is one that compromises the core operating system, halting the system.

Which brings us to gerrymandering.

In this cartoon, a paint brush is being used as a broom over a map of Pennsylvania.
In this cartoon, a paint brush is being used as a broom over a map of Pennsylvania. | Image Credit: Illustration by Rob Tornoe


A nest of ills

Gerrymandering is the common practice of drawing election maps in a way that distorts district lines to favor one political faction or set of candidates (incumbents, for example).

Are you concerned about the rising percentage of elections where incumbents get re-elected with no, or only token, opposition?

Are you worried about the rise of hyper-partisanship in American politics?

Dismayed by gridlock and dysfunction on Capitol Hill and many state legislatures?

Baffled by the refusal of legislatures to enact reforms that polls say are favored by large majorities of Americans?

All of these problems stem – not exclusively, but in significant part – from the long-tail effects of gerrymandering.

This is most definitely not a result that the framers of the U.S. Constitution anticipated or intended.

It is a bug that’s undermining the way our government is supposed to work.

Madison would need an Excedrin

Did you know our Constitution does not even mention political parties?

In the Federalist Papers, the Constitution’s prime advocate, James Madison, described the document’s system of checks and balances as a way to limit the damaging effects of what he called “factions.”

Nor does the Constitution prescribe the modern method of electing members of the House of Representatives— using maps that divide states into congressional districts of equal population. That rule was not baked into federal law until 1967, when Congress had to respond to the “one person, one vote” rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

That said, the practice of gerrymandering has been around since the earliest days of the Republic.  After all, the term is named after a founding father (and early user of the gambit), Elbridge Gerry, who signed the Declaration of Independence and attended the Constitutional Convention.

An ancient tactic, weaponized

Still, gerrymandering and its effects have grown more dire in the last 30 years.

Why? Well, our use of a computer analogy to describe gerrymandering is not accidental. The rise of information technology in the 1980s clearly accelerated the ill effects of the practice.

How? Let’s think it through together.

First, some necessary background. Election maps usually get drawn every 10 years, in the year ending in “1.” That’s because the maps are based on the new federal Census that’s done in every round-numbered year (e.g. 1990, 2000, 2010, 2020).

In Pennsylvania, maps for both Congress and state legislative seats get drawn in the state Capitol.  The processes for federal and state maps differ, but each is highly dependent on the political balance of power in Harrisburg, as set by the elections held in the round-numbered year.

When power is divided between Democrats and Republicans, it is harder to achieve a purely partisan gerrymander.  Powerful incumbents will still fiddle with the lines to ensure their own job security, but no single party can ram through a wildly partisan map.

But back in 2011, the last time maps were drawn in Harrisburg, Republicans controlled both houses of the General Assembly, the governor’s mansion and the state Supreme Court.  And they went to town.

They married sophisticated mapping software with Big Data - the reams of digital information about not only people’s voting habits, but their purchasing and lifestyle preferences.  

The wandering, jagged map lines that resulted  – which seemingly had scant connection to geographical logic – were not in fact random.

They were based on a rigorous, partisan logic.  They enabled the map-drawers to turn the usual election dynamic on its head.

Instead of voters choosing politicians, the politicians were able to choose with diabolical precision exactly which voters they wanted, or did not want, to have in each district, so as to maximize Republican advantage for the next decade.

Rigged?  Well, yes, sort of

Similar situations occurred in many state houses across the nation, after the GOP had a very good election year in 2010.  (To be perfectly clear and fair, in states where Democrats held power, such as Maryland and Illinois, they also used the new tools to gerrymander their states to a fare-the-well.)

The result in Pennsylvania: A congressional map of the state that locked in a 13-5 GOP majority in the state’s congressional delegation to Washington, a split that held no matter how Pennsylvanians actually voted in a given election.

In 2008 and 2012, years when Barack Obama won the state by safe margins and a majority of those who voted for Congress chose Democrats, 13 Republicans still won. Perhaps even more telling, in 2016, a year in which Donald Trump took Pennsylvania by storm, the Republicans did not increase their advantage.  

You see, under the map done in 2011 (now overturned and replaced by the state Supreme Court), Pennsylvania was almost surely going to have a 13-5 delegation, no matter what voters did. Talk about a rigged election …

The state legislative maps tilted red to an equal degree – giving the GOP huge majorities in each chamber of the General Assembly, even though the statewide vote favored the party only slightly.

That distortion is distressing by itself (and would be equally upsetting if it had been Democrats dealing themselves a royal flush).  Still, the downstream effects compound the concern.

The damaging march to the fringes

Think about those 13 Republican congressmen (they were all men) from Pennsylvania, pretty confident that no matter what they did and no matter which way the political winds blew, they could not lose a general election -- thanks to the state’s cleverly partisan map.

In fact, think of the five Democrats as well – because the method of the 2011 map was to pack Democratic voters into a few, mostly urban districts.  Four of those five Democrats never had to break a sweat to win, either.

What impact does such a situation have on how our elected representatives behave?

First, this:

They realize that the only way they could ever lose their seats would be via a challenge in their party primary in May.

And where would that challenge come from? For a Republican, it would likely come from their right, out of the adamant Tea Party or evangelical ranks of the conservative grassroots.

For a Democrat, what’s the possible threat?   From their left, from the thickets of identity politics or what in 2016 became known as the Sanders progressive wing.

So, this becomes the logic of political self-preservation:  Don’t dare annoy the ideological types on the fringes of your party.   Don’t vary from absolutist positions on the emotional, wedge issues that arouse activists who vote in your primary:  e.g. abortion, gay rights, guns, immigration.

Meanwhile, you can safely ignore the pragmatists and the independents in the moderate middle of the electorate.  Many of them don’t or can’t vote in primaries. By the time they get around to voting in November, the map will have already locked in your victory.

Compromise, get outta town!

In this environment, compromise — long the essential lubricant of lawmaking — now gets you nowhere.  Instead, ideological purity, expressed as harshly as possible, offers the safe path to easy primaries and plenty of campaign cash.

Politicians tend to be simple creatures. They respond to two stimuli – pleasure and pain.  Pleasure is anything that eases re-election. Pain is anything that increases the risk of losing.

Gerrymandered maps make it far easier for ideological activists and special interests to bring pleasure or pain to incumbents.  

In the process, the mass of voters in the middle of the American spectrum — the independents, the moderates, the pragmatists, the centrists, the believers in compromise, the whatever-you-want-to-call-thems— all get shunted to the sidelines.

Gerrymandering  helps create legislatures where ideological posturing and partisan heat are rewarded, and compromise is downright dangerous.  

That, friends, is a recipe for gridlock and dysfunction, for a place where nuanced, thoughtful solutions to complex problems are nearly impossible to achieve.

Choice? What choice?

It also creates November ballots low on meaningful options for many of the state’s votes.

This is particularly true when, as in Pennsylvania, you combine the tilted maps with loose campaign finance rules (Pennsylvania has never had meaningful limits, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings have diluted the impact of federal ones).  

This Wild West for campaign finance offers a big advantage to incumbents, rich challengers who can self-fund, or people willing to do the bidding of monied interests.  

To compound matters, Pennsylvania has a closed and  partisan primary system that disenfranchises independent voters every May, and pretty much denies independents and third-party candidates any meaningful chance at winning in November.

For voters in November 2016, the end results of all these factors were:

General Assembly elections where nearly half of the winners of House and Senate seats were unopposed.

Congressional elections where three of 18 winners ran unopposed and only two races could be termed even remotely competitive.

The sad bottom line

But in Pennsylvania, voters get not so much the government they deserve. They get whatever government the bug in the operating system allows.

It is sometimes said Americans get the government they deserve; there may be some truth to the aphorism.