Think back real hard to 9th-grade Civics. You’ll vaguely remember a term called “gerrymandering.” You probably haven’t thought about it since then. But you should. Because it is one of the reasons for the partisan divide in the United States today.
The chart below explains what gerrymandering is and shows 3 separate examples of how legislative districts can be created.
Grid 3 is what my own state of Pennsylvania looks like: neither compact nor fair. But both grid 1 and grid 3 can result in extreme partisanship. Here’s why: If you’re a Republican in a safely “red” district, you probably don’t have to worry about your Democratic opponent. Your biggest threat is a primary challenge from the right. So, if you want to keep your job, it is in your best interest to take extreme conservative positions, and refuse to compromise with Democrats. The same applies for a Democratic congressman in a safely “blue” district. It’s to his advantage to lean strongly left.
Grid 2 is less fair than grid 1, but it has the advantage of mixing conservative, liberal and moderate voters in one district. Your congressman (or woman) in that kind of district has more incentive to take moderate positions and to compromise with representatives across the aisle.
The best way to get districts that are compact, fair and hopefully moderate? Take it out of the hands of state legislators who have personal biases in favor of their parties, and let a computer do it. Here’s what that would look like in several strongly gerrymandered states.
Fairer districting would go a long way towards giving us back the kind of government we had between the 1950s and the 1980s. Those of us old enough to remember the 70s and 80s can remember when Republicans and Democrats actually worked across the aisles and created compromises that benefited the whole country, instead of just their particular party’s interest groups. If you’d like to see that happen again, you should care about gerrymandering. Here’s a link to Fair District PA, a group that is working to create better legislative districts in Pennsylvania.