Saturday, September 29, 2012


Polarization can be a controversial topic. Some people believe our population is becoming more polarized with each election and/or generations, while of the other hand some people deny the fact that polarization may even exist. Although, not everyone can agree whether our population is becoming more polarized or not or even if polarization does exist, we can all agree on one thing, that gerrymandering does exist. Since, we can all agree on the fact that gerrymandering exists, I think it is wise to take a closer look at gerrymandering and the effects it has on political polarization. To get a better sense of gerrymandering we will start with the basic definition and history, then the process and the effects on political polarization.

The Webster Dictionary defines gerrymandering as, the dividing of a state, county, etc., into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible. The word gerrymander originates from Massachusetts in March of 1812 when it was first published in the Boston Gazette as Gerry-mander. Gerrymander is a combination of Governor Gerry and the word salamander, because of the bizarre shape created by Governor Gerry's redistricting.

This political cartoon was published in many federalist newspapers in March of 1812, in reaction to the redistricting by the Democratic-Republican party in favor of Governor Gerry.

There are two different ways the party in control can use gerrymandering to their favor. They are referred to as packing and cracking. Packing is when the party in control concentrates as many voters of one type into a single district to reduce influence on other districts.

This redistricting of Illinois illustrates the method of packing. This packs two Hispanic populations together, but remains contiguous because it narrowly traces the interstate.

On the other hand, cracking is spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts to deny them a specific voting bloc.

In this illustration we can see how cracking can be used to split up a specific voting bloc.

Most parties when in control use a combination of both packing and cracking to create forfeit seats. The reason gerrymandering is so effective is because of the "wasted vote effect". A wasted vote is any vote that does not help to elect a candidate, either a candidate who has already one (surplus) or a vote for an already eliminated candidate. Due to the wasted vote effect gerrymandering has been extremely successful for the party in power. In 2000 California redrew cooperatively its state and federal districts. They were so successful that in 2004 not a single state or federal office changed party, even though over 150 seats were potentially at risk. In 2002 Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann concluded, "only four challengers were able to defeat incumbent members of US Congress, the lowest ever.

Ornstein's and Mann's statement leads us to the effects and problems associated with gerrymandering in relation to political rhetoric. Gerrymandering essentially leads to noncompetitive seats/districts. These noncompetitive seats/districts reduce the fear of an incumbent losing his/her officer. Because the incumbents are not as worried about being reelected they may be more inclined to re present their party more than their constituents. Additionally, when the incumbents have less fear of losing there office they able to become more extreme, because they no longer have to appeal to the "middle" or the "swing voters". The incumbents can simply focus on the voters who already agree with him/her and overtime the message becomes more and more one side and less moderate. Another problem associated with gerrymandering is our single vote or "winner-take-all" system. Because each district only has one representative and there is no distribution of extra mandates to smaller parties we are more likely to have a two-party system. This phenomena is called Duverger's Law. With only two major parties all the voters are stuck with one or other and hardly any other options, once again allowing the two parties to become more and more extreme.

In conclusion, gerrymandering has many negative effects on elections and alternative options should be considered for the United States. "Less partisan gerrymandering would foster more representative democratic rhetoric." I believe this statement from Amy Gutman's The lure & dangers of extremist rhetoric, demonstrates that experts agree as well.

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