McDonald shares the art of gerrymandering

Ed Frankonis, Crier staff

It has become increasingly common in the United States for an election to be decisively decided long before any vote has been cast. That’s the general idea of the problem Dr. Michael McDonald, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Florida and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, addressed in the (now fully reopen) New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the night of Sept 19.

The problem Dr. McDonald was describing is known as gerrymandering, or redrawing voting districts (areas that designate who votes where, and who represents what part of the state/county/city) in a way that politically benefits one party over another. This redrawing of voting districts was first coined in a famous cartoon in 1812, which depicted a snake-shaped voting district that was drawn to benefit the then-governing party of Massachusetts.

Gerrymandering is usually done with a specific kind of strategy or tactic in mind. In his talk, Dr. McDonald explained common strategies that are used in tilting districts in favor of one side or another. One popular strategy is called “cracking”, or when unfavorable voters are so split up the opposing party can’t hope to win a seat. Although redistricting strategies often depend on factors like geography or population concentration, Dr. McDonald explains that the bottom line strategy is to “waste your opponent’s votes.”

Such redrawing of districts, Dr. McDonald explains, often affect the outcome of elections before any ballots have been cast. For contemporary examples of this, he pointed to states like Pennsylvania and Michigan where despite winning more overall votes, Democrats lost state seats due to gerrymandering. Similar results could also be found in the 2012 Congressional elections where, despite winning almost one and a half million more votes than their opponents, Democrats did not take a majority of seats in the House.

It would make sense that Dr. McDonald would know the power of redistricting so well; after all, his job was once to advise legislators who were doing so.

While working for lawmakers in the state of his alma mater (CalTech and U. of California), Dr. McDonald said he began to realize just how “corrupt” the process was. To highlight this corruption, he explained to the audience that he once had to help re-draw an entire voting district just so it would include a legislator’s mother. Another legislator once demanded that a local country club (in which the lawmaker had free membership) be included in their voting district, making the already difficult map-drawing process that much harder.

The repeated “little things” lawmakers did “for their own crass self-interest” pushed Dr. McDonald to try to come up with a better, more fairer way of drawing voting districts.

This “better way” in the eyes of Dr. McDonald is the Public Mapping Project, which became the main subject matter of the night’s discussion. This project, funded by multiple foundations and institutions (like the Sloan Foundation, GIS company Azavea, and Amazon-yes, the one with Prime), is geared towards training and equipping members of the public to be able to draw their own legally sound voting districts.

The project has four main objectives, each designed to let citizens draw voting districts instead of gerrymandering legislators. The first two, using both election data and software to give citizens said ability, are being accomplished via the District Builder.

This application, which is free of charge to use and open-sourced via GitHub, uses a simple interface and real population data from the Census Bureau to make district drawing simple. In a demonstration, Dr. McDonald showed that redistricting via District Builder was as easy as dragging and dropping districts on a map.

The last two objectives center around providing the public information about redistricting. Dr. McDonald named the website “All About Redistricting” and the book A Citizen’s Guide to Redistricting as excellent sources of topical information.

Dr. McDonald notes that the project has already produced results. In 2010, Minneapolis adopted a citizen commission that, despite being completely inexperienced, used the District Builder software to redraw city voting districts.

Pre-redrawing, a “cracking” tactic had been employed against the municipal Latino population; after the citizen’s redrawing, the city was finally able to elect its first Latino member of city council. Recently, law students involved in a Public Mapping competition (where winners earn up to $5K) used District Builder to make a map that complied with the Voting Rights Act (an act that prohibits diluting minority power via redistricting).

In striking down a gerrymandered map, Virginia courts adopted one that looked very similar to that of the students’.

Although Dr. McDonald acknowledged that many challenges remain in realizing the citizen-redistricting goal (he noted New Hampshire as a special (read: harder) case due to its “floterial districts,” or districts that overlap with each other), he firmly believes that equipping citizen commissions to redraw voting districts is a better way to ensure elections remain fair.

And with students like Jacob Halterman noting that he “came away [from the talk] with a greater appreciation [of what it] takes to fairly represent [the] American public,” it seems like the next generation is already on board with that goal.