By Hillel Aron
Gerrymandering, in which politicians create stacked "voting districts" to fix elections, is a great original sin of our democracy. Three examples:
1) Barack Obama vs. Bobby Rush
In 2000, Democratic incumbent Bobby Rush got a scare in the primary when a little-known challenger named Barack Hussein Obama received more than 30 percent of the vote.
What did Rush do? A year later, Rush brought in for-hire mapmakers who quietly carved the home of Barack Obama out of the district.
How on earth could this be?
Wake up, people.
This particular bit of dirt from the "redistricting" process, which incumbent politicians perform with glee to make sure they have no competition, is sometimes called "beheading."
The bizarrely-shaped new district lines in Illinois ran one block to the north, two blocks to the west, and one block to the south of Obama's residence.
The unremarkable Bobby Rush went unopposed in the 2002 and 2004 primaries. Voters there are still stuck with him today.
2) Patrick Henry vs. James Madison
Despite having fought the British together, Henry, a radical Republican, and Madison, a Federalist, hated each other.
So Henry, in his capacity as the first governor of Virginia, blocked Madison's attempt to get elected senator.
Then, when Madison wanted to run for congress, Henry drew the voting district lines in such a way that Madison's district included counties likely to oppose him.
No matter. Madison won the seat anyway.
It was, perhaps, the first American gerrymander, even the though the word "gerry + mander" hadn't been invented yet.
(Years later, a Massachusetts voting district was so badly distorted by Governor Elbridge Gerry that it was said to look like a salamander.)
3) California politicians vs. the voters
The 2001 gerrymandering of all 120 California state legislative seats and all 53 Congressional seats was masterminded by hired gun Michael Berman, brother of San Fernando Valley congressman Howard Berman.
Michael B. was paid more than $1 million, much of it coming in $20,000 increments from 30 California congressmen and women.
Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez then blabbed about those payments to the world, which you can read about here.
That's right: 30 of our U.S. Representatives paid $20,000 to Michael Berman to make mathematically, scientifically sure California voters could not get rid of them at the voting booth.
But in 2001, Republicans hadn't liked what they were seeing of the Berman mapping scheme, and threatened to challenge it in the courts and with a ballot measure.
So the Bermans and the Democratic incumbents struck an unholy deal with the Republican incumbents:
34 California Congressional districts would be drawn to ensure that voters were stuck with Democrats, and 20 California Congressional Districts would be drawn to ensure that voters were stuck with Republicans.
That left just three competitive Congressional seats in which the election wasn't fixed long before voters streamed to the polls in November.
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Guess how many U.S. House of Representatives races are competitive in vast California this year, districts in which those running for office actually have to make an effort for your vote?
Three. You can read about that in this recent post.
Proposition 20 would put an end to this in California. Proposition 27 would roll back reforms and let the California legislature go back to its bad old ways.
For more info, please see The Citizen's Guide to Redistricting by Justin Levitt.