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This Is How Gerrymandering Works

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Voters in Birmingham waiting in line to cast their ballots in Alabama’s special election, on December 12, 2017

I first got interested in gerrymandering on that long-ago night in 2012 when President Obama was re-elected. By 10 PM, it was clear that Obama had won. The next morning, I took a closer look at the returns.

I grew up, and currently live, in Harris County, Texas, which includes much of the Houston metropolitan area. After Los Angeles County, California, and Cook County, Illinois, ours is the third-most populous county in the nation. Its population, close to 4.6 million, is greater than the populations of twenty-seven states. So I was stunned to see that Obama was ahead of Romney by two. Not 2 percent. Not 0.2 percent. Not 2,000.

Two votes: 579,070 to 579,068

I looked for the fine print. But with nearly 99.2 percent of precincts reporting, these were the numbers. (That last 0.8 percent turned out more heavily for Obama. He won by 971 votes, out of 1,188,585 cast.)

That made Harris County, by far, the most closely divided large population center in the country. Under a truly representative system, a county this large and this evenly divided would hold the key to the House of Representatives, and thus open one of the doors to national power. You would expect every race to be hotly contested, wildly expensive, and closely watched. They almost never are. 

In 2003, the districts were changed by Tom DeLay, the former congressman and House majority leader later convicted for election violations. (Amid great controversy, the conviction was subsequently overturned.) This was a break with precedent: a redistricting had never occurred in any state between censuses. And it was effective: in the 2004 elections, six incumbent Democrats lost in Texas. This helped the Republican Party increase its House majority by three additional representatives—in a year when the Democratic share of the popular vote rose nationally.

Since then, the number of House seats in Texas has grown from thirty-two to thirty-six, but even with all of them up every two years, on only half a dozen occasions has one changed hands. After the 2010 census, the Texas Legislature, which draws the lines, hewed closely to the DeLay gerrymander.

The results are clear. An average district has about 710,000 people. That would divide fairly evenly into the 4.6 million people in Harris County. So there should be six districts entirely within Harris County. But there aren’t.

Instead, the Houston metropolitan area, of which Harris County is a part, is divided into nine districts whose boundaries are, literally, all over the map. One touches Louisiana; one goes halfway to Dallas; one runs from northwest Harris County to the northern half of Travis County, putting parts of Austin and Houston in the same district. 

That didn’t just happen. Urban, Democratic-leaning voters are grouped into as few districts as possible, or divided into little parcels and grouped with Republican exurbs and rural areas. The process is known as “packing and cracking.”

Travis County, which contains the nation’s eleventh largest city, Austin, has about 1.2 million people, almost enough for two complete districts. But it is divided into five. One stretches down to the Mexican border; another all the way up to Fort Worth, almost two hundred miles away. Travis is the most liberal county in Texas, so the Republican legislature has drawn the lines in a way that gives it, instead of two Democrats, one Democrat and four Republicans.

(Alabama, with roughly the population of Harris County, has seven districts. In this month’s special election, Doug Jones received a higher percentage of the votes cast than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 in every county—not just the counties that Hillary carried. Jones won. But such is the efficacy of gerrymandering that Roy Moore carried six of the seven districts.)

These lines mean that anyone from the dominant party can expect at least 60 percent. One effect is in Washington, where there is little cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. No Republican voted for Obamacare, and no Democrat voted for its repeal. No Democrat voted for the tax bill, and very few voted to approve Trump’s cabinet appointees.

This is why gerrymandering has become a major cause of polarization. No representative has to take into account people who disagree with him or her. And it helps to explain why so few people bother to vote. Why should they, if the outcome of elections is known in advance? 

Until recently, this was true of the 7th congressional district of Texas, where I am running. The district was not intended to be competitive. But the GOP’s majority in the district has eroded. The incumbent, John Culberson, is a Tea Partier with an above 98 percent pro-Trump voting record. In 2016, he eked out a relatively narrow win, 56 percent, against a poorly financed, largely unknown opponent. 

Many of my neighbors are the kinds of Republicans one associates with George H.W. Bush, the first person to represent the 7th when its modern boundaries were created. They are highly educated, comparatively wealthy people who are not comfortable with Trump. They don’t like his volatility or his racism—a majority of the district’s residents are non-white. So, in the same year that Culberson was re-elected, a slim majority in the district voted for Hillary Clinton.

Gerrymandering is not only designed to preserve majorities. It’s also designed to preserve cynicism and non-participation. When I’ve been out on the campaign trail, I’ve found one thing is reliably true. Regardless of party affiliation, nobody likes gerrymandering. Americans agree that, in a democracy, everyone ought to have an equal vote. It’s a question of justice and equality.

I got confirmation of that when I recently put together a thread on Twitter (see below) showing how gerrymandering worked in my own district. It also included a Democratic district in Illinois and the zigzag mess that is North Carolina. It touched a nerve. This mini-essay, which I wrote in about ten minutes, earned over three million interactions on Twitter. I was surprised by the number, but not by the passion. Whenever I speak about this issue, I hear the same thing: Americans are tired of living under a rigged system.