Almost as old as the republic itself, gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating electoral district boundaries for a political party’s advantage in its aim to secure more legislative seats, bedevils American politics and governance.
Even though gerrymandering is unpopular with the public, most people do not understand the complexities of the problem that Franklin & Marshall College’s Stephen Medvic examines in his latest book, “Gerrymandering: The Politics of Redistricting in the United States,” published in June by Polity Press.
The Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government, Medvic opens the 214-page book with a tale of two states:
In Pennsylvania in 2012, Democrats won a little more than 50% of the congressional vote, but only about 25% of the congressional seats. In North Carolina, Republican state House candidates received 53% of the vote, but 77% of the House’s seats.
“How can these results have happened? Perhaps more importantly, is there any way in which these outcomes can be considered democratic?” Medvic writes. “The short answer to the first question is that the congressional district boundaries in Pennsylvania, like legislative district lines in many states, were gerrymandered.”
Medvic, whose primary research as a political scientist includes campaigns, elections and political parties, says the public’s lack of understanding about the practice, which appears to give unfair advantage to the party in power, has led to the idea that there are easy solutions to address gerrymandering.
A frequent commentator for news outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post and Salon.com as well as the author of several books on politics including the textbook “Campaigns and Elections: Players and Processes,” Medvic’s new book comes out at a pivotal moment. State legislatures are convening this year, with the latest U.S. Census data on demographic shifts in each state, to begin the process of redistricting.
He examines the complicated process of gerrymandering, tracing its history, which began with the politician for whom the practice is so named—Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts governor and, briefly, vice president of the U.S. under President James Madison. In 1812, Gov. Gerry signed legislation that created a weirdly shaped partisan district that favored his party.
Medvic explains the legal status and implementation of gerrymandering today and its consequences. He also offers possible options for reform.
“Certain aspects of gerrymandering are clearly troubling, but as long as legislative district boundaries have to be drawn, there may never be a perfect way to do so,” he said.