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, that would be 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 halts the entire 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 party or set of candidates (incumbents, for example).

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 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.

An ancient tactic, weaponized

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.

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

Why? The rise of information technology in the 1980s clearly accelerated the ill effects of the practice.

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). The next Census is coming in 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 when the lines are drawn.

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 were not at all 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 2010.  (To be perfectly clear, in states where Democrats held power, such as Maryland and Illinois, they also used the new tools to gerrymander their states.)

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 …

(Update: In the first election held under the new map imposed by the state court, the party split in the Pennsylvania congressional delegation was 9-9.)

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 would be equally unfair if it had been Democrats dealing themselves a royal flush. The consequences compound the concern.

The damaging march to the fringes

Think about those 13 Republican congressmen (they were all men) from Pennsylvania earlier this decade.  They were 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 leads to political self-preservation: Don’t dare annoy the ideological wings of your party. Don’t vary from absolutist positions on the issues that arouse activists who vote in your primary: e.g. abortion, gay rights, guns, immigration.

Meanwhile, you can safely ignore the moderates and the independents in the 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 victory.

Politicians are, in a sense, simple beings. They respond to two things – 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— all get shunted to the sidelines.

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

That 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, particularly independents who could not vote in the primary election.

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 competitive.

The sad bottom line

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