The Short Version: How We Can End Partisan Gerrymandering
The point of it all is to break down the headlines, the week’s most controversial issues, determine why a particular issue is important and reveal the best arguments on each side of the story.
In a recent iterations of The Short Version, Cleo Abram addressed the firing of FBI director James Comey of the FBI. She then posted about the question as to whether or not a sitting president should be immune from criminal prosecution. This week Cleo’s topic is about how we could end partisan gerrymandering.
“Fun fact! (Just go with me.) The term ‘gerrymandering’ comes from Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, whose party redrew districts dramatically in the 1800’s. People said one looked like a salamander, because it was so long and strangely shaped. Gerry, salamander… you get it,” quipped Cleo.
Note: In general, if you have missed any of Cleo’s blogs, just go to our Home Page, type “The Short Version” into Search (magnifying glass icon) and poof, like magic, all her blogs will appear.
The most important news to know this week wasn’t President Trump’s trip overseas, Jared Kushner’s communications with Russia, or even the G-7 Summit. It was a Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering means intentionally dividing election districts to give one group an advantage. But back up a minute: In Congress, you’re represented by two Senators from your state as well as one House member for the district you live in within that state. The number of districts in your state—and the number of House members—depends on its population. (In 2016, the Supreme Court held that states may use total population to make these calculations, as opposed to total voting-eligiblepopulation.)
Roughly speaking, every Congressional district covers the same number of people—approximately the U.S. population (326M) divided by the number of House representatives (435). It comes out to around 750,000 people per district. The fact that districts can’t cross state lines means these numbers don’t end up perfectly equal across the country. But they’re close.
Within each state, every district has to be as close to equal in population as is possible. In order to keep up with population changes, these lines are usually redrawn with the Census every 10 years.
But deciding how to draw those district lines is not easy. In most states, that decision is up to the state legislature—which often works to give their majority party a leg up in Congress. That’s gerrymandering.
So what happened this week? In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that North Carolina was using race to gerrymander districts in an improper way. States can use race to redraw district lines but only if it serves a “compelling interest” (like complying with the Voting Rights Act to protect minority voting interests.) The Supreme Court found that North Carolina lawmakers used race without that compelling interest—setting some boundaries for gerrymandering in the future.
Why is it important?
Gerrymandering has an important impact on our electoral map, though political scientists disagree about the size of that impact and other factors involved.
In this case, the decision comes down against race-based gerrymandering. But it is decidedly not the prohibition against political gerrymandering as a whole, which some have mistakenly said it is.
Redrawing district lines to give your party an advantage is still perfectly legal—and the debate about whether it should be could change our elections.
Should we change how we draw district lines to prevent partisan gerrymandering?
More about Cleo Abram:
Cleo grew up in Washington D.C., lives in New York City, and loves to visit her parents in Telluride. She authors “The Short Version,” a newsletter that explains each week’s most important issue and both sides of the debate around it.
Cleo is a digital strategist now working at Vox, a general interest news site for the 21st century. Its mission is simple: Explain the news. Politics, public policy, world affairs, pop culture, science, business, and more.
Cleo’s work focuses on ways to share, educate, and inform using online platforms. While in college at Columbia University, she guided the school’s entrance into online education through her role as the youngest elected representative to the Columbia Senate, which makes university-wide policy.
She continued her work on online education at TED-Ed, the educational branch of the nonprofit, building new programs and online tools to support high school teachers worldwide.
Continuing her work with TED, Cleo founded and led an early TEDx conference, the organization’s community-specific series.
Most importantly, Cleo loves to ski.
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