How voting — or choosing not to — might slow gerrymandering

Gerrymandering season has begun, as state legislative and independent commissions begin the process of drawing new state house and senate districts, as well as new congressional districts. Politicians seeking reelection have a stake in the process, since winning or losing may depend on how districts in their state are drawn. Democrats in states like Illinois and New York drive the gerrymandering wagon, while Republicans in states like Florida and Texas handle the reins. States with independent commissions enjoy the benefits of a bipartisan process, although governors hold veto power in numerous states to override such efforts.     

Holding majority status in a state legislature is often a party’s golden ticket to winning the gerrymandering battles. This gives them a tailwind to draw maps that favor their candidates to ensure that they can continue to hold majority status. 

The weapons of gerrymandering are packing and cracking. Packing occurs when voters of similar political leanings are jammed into a small number of districts, which they win easily, but are insufficient to gain majority status across the state. Cracking distributes these same voters across multiple districts, also making it difficult to win a sufficient number of seats to gain majority status. 

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Gerrymandered districts typically look like someone took a crowbar to fit the communities of interest or counties together to create them. They often have jagged edges and protrude in a manner that keeps each district contiguous while achieving desired partisan objectives.   

The proposed Illinois congressional map is a prototype for gerrymandering. It represents a poster child for politicians picking their voters, rather than voters electing their representatives. For example, the mapping committee seems to have methodically carved Districts 13, 15 and 17 to include or exclude certain voters to maximize the number of Democrat representatives in rural parts of the state that are typically Republican leaning.   

Organizations, like the League of Women’s Voters, have worked to support state legislation to create independent redistricting commissions. The problem is that the very people who must pass such laws have nothing to gain by them.   

There is some hope. Both the For the People Act and the Freedom to Vote Act contained provisions that would require independent commissions to draw U.S. House districts. Unfortunately, other components of these bills mean that they will not become law.  

Drawing maps manually is no longer necessary. Computer algorithms exist to make the map drawing process as easy as using an app on your smart phone. Creating maps is easy, which is why many states ask voters to submit some for review. The problem is scoring them to detect when packing and cracking has occurred and expose the nefarious intent of partisan mapping committees and commissions.   

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Much like how the NCAA Selection Committee has a team score sheet when evaluating which teams should be given at-large bids into the college basketball tournament, commonly known as March Madness, every map can be scored to assess how it will serve the interests of the voters or the politicians. 

If voters cannot change the laws to stop gerrymandering, what can they do to mitigate its impact? 

In the short term, very little. 

In the long term, voters can muddy the data to make gerrymandering more difficult, since the weapons of gerrymandering, packing and cracking, rely on previous voting data.   

Voters who live in highly gerrymandered cracked districts against them can overwhelm the historical data by voting at unprecedented levels. In doing so, they force the favored candidate support to also step up and record-high voter turnout.  

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Alternatively, they can simply not vote in large numbers, giving the other party’s candidate the seat, but obfuscate the voting data for future elections and maps. In both cases, a concerted effort must be made to coordinate voters to achieve such a desired objective.  

Sound Machiavellian?  It is. But so is gerrymandering.   

With under 10 percent of all congressional districts in 2020 classified as competitive, supporting candidates who are unwilling to challenge the status quo, particularly those candidates who benefit from gerrymandering, makes no sense.   

Sometimes short-term pain can lead to long-term gain. Insanity is defined as repeatedly doing the same thing while expecting different results.   

Time for voters to stop this insanity and make their votes count, even if that means not casting it on Election Day.      

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research group on computational redistricting is committed to bringing transparency to the redistricting process using optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence.