Tipping the Balance Through Gerrymandering

By Gus Tyler

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.

How “representative” is our House of Representatives? Hardly at all. And if the Texas legislature’s recent decision on the redistricting of its congressional districts is upheld in the courts, the U.S. legislature will be even less representative than it has been.

At present, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, only about 40 are in contest on Election Day. If the Texas redistricting is upheld, there will be only about 32 seats (out of 435) in contest. How has this come to be? It’s all due to the gerrymander. Here’s a bit of personal and American history.

In 1951, I did a study on the congressional election of the midterm year of 1950. I found that in state after state, one party would get the popular majority of the vote in the state, while the other party got a majority of the seats. How could that be?

I found that some districts had twice the population of other districts in the same state. In 1952 I wrote an article in The New Republic titled “The U.S. House of Unrepresentatives.” It caught on. A national movement emerged. The ultimate result was the historic “one man, one vote” decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Since then, districts have been approximately equal in population.

Enter the gerrymander. Without violating the “one man, one vote” rule, parties found it possible to design the shapes of districts so as to empower one party against the other regardless of the popular vote.

At present, the Texas Republicans hold 15 seats in the House of Representatives. If their redistricting is found valid, the GOP will increase its congressional delegation by seven seats to 22. Now, just how can this be done?

In the present situation, prior to redistricting, seven of the seats held by Democrats are in districts where the races were close. In these tightly fought districts, the balance of power that gave the Democrats their majority in each district has been the vote of blacks and Hispanics.

What the GOP plans to do is to remove these two “minority” elements from the districts where they provided the balance for Democratic candidates and dump as many of them as possible into a new district. The new district would be predominantly inhabited by blacks and Hispanics, who would get one “safe” seat — probably Democratic.

Yet, by sweeping these voters (black and Hispanic) out of the swing districts where they provided the balance for Democratic victories in the past, the once- Democratic districts will be made “safe” for the Republicans.

To create such a black-Hispanic district, which would include separated “ghettos,” requires a devilish bit of designing that, when introduced by Governor Eldridge Gerry many generations ago, inspired an observer to say, “It looks like a salamander.” Hence the term “gerrymander.”

In one scary respect, however, this “gerrymander” is the first of its kind. In the past, redistricting took place only on the heels of the decennial census. In Texas, for the first time in American history, the proposed redistricting is taking place three years after the decennial census. If allowed to stand by the court, we may expect that anytime any state legislature may decide to redraw its district lines.

Allowed to run loose, the gerrymander will guarantee that the House of Representatives will be increasingly more unrepresentative.



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