The Return of the Gerrymander

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 30th October 2016

With all the media attention focusing on the upcoming American Presidential Election, it’s easy to forget that it isn’t the only election happening on that day. Voters up and down the country will be voting in local referendums, for Senators, for Representatives and for a host of local elected positions.

The Democrats are currently leading in the polls for Congressional elections by six points and with only two major parties you’d think that a lead this big would be enough to guarantee the Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives. But this doesn’t take into account gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the process whereby politicians pick the voters they want to elect them. The word originates from 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redistricted the state to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. One of the districts in the Boston area was so contorted it looked like a dragon, or salamander – hence ‘gerrymander’. But the process is as old as the idea of an area electing one representative.

The goal of a prospective gerrymanderer is to create as few extremely safe seats for your opponent as you can, whilst designing the remaining seats to have an opponent in the minority and big majorities in your favour. In North Carolina they went as far as drawing the boundary down a road and around the house of a popular former representative, to stop them running in the same seat again.

It has got to the point where the Democrats would have to have a national lead of eight percentage points to get a majority in the House of Representatives. In fact, in 2012 the Democrats won the popular vote in the House by more than a million votes (1.2%) and still came 33 seats behind the Republicans, who kept their majority.

Of course we are in the middle of a boundary review in the UK at the moment. The marked difference is that boundaries in the UK are designed by the independent Boundary Commissions rather than by politicians themselves. But even with an independent boundary commission, the borders will always affect the result of the next election.

Our current boundary review is based on the principle that there should be 600 constituencies containing a roughly equal amount of registered electors. The obvious problem is that the government ignored the Electoral Commission’s advice and moved forward the deadline for registration by one year to December 2015.

This move effectively excluded over two million people who signed up between December and June, resulting in some regions where people have less settled lifestyles and registered later being two seats short of what they are owed. It would be much fairer – and would make more sense – to draw boundaries based on eligible population using census data rather than an incomplete electoral register.

The less obvious problem is that based on this basic principle you could design hundreds of different constituency maps that would all result in a different makeup of parliament. Where the lines go can directly change who represents you in parliament, and how many MPs each party has. On what basis can we judge if the final boundaries are fair or not? Often we look to compactness and how much they respect real communities, rather than how well the end result would reflect how people actually voted.

Control of the 5 member city council changes as the borders move, even though nobody changes how they vote.

Of course, it would require gerrymandering that would put North Carolina to shame to construct constituencies needed to give the Greens, Liberal Democrats and UKIP the right number of seats in relation to the number of votes they got in 2015.

In order to reduce the importance of constituency boundaries in deciding our government, we need to abandon the idea that each constituency should elect one MP. Proportional electoral systems like the Single Transferable Vote elect multiple MPs from bigger constituencies so that parties that get a fifth of the vote across five constituencies now, would get 1 out of 5 MPs from a new merged constituency. Rather than trying to divide a town or county into equal-sized lumps, the whole town could be represented by a team of MPs who actually reflect the variety of political opinion in that town.

So while the US struggles with its gerrymandering problem, perhaps we should look to our own issues. It’s high time we got rid of this unfair voting system. Let’s scrap First Past the Post once and for all.

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