What is the earliest example of gerrymandering

United States: Distorted democracy


Read on one side

Dramatic words were heard from the courtroom at the Supreme Court in Washington last Tuesday. What is at stake here, so lawyer Paul Smith in his opening speech, is nothing less than the core of democracy itself. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the now 84-year-old liberal judge, who, with her age-bent stance, often during the hearings, is also at stake seems bored, did not hold back in her assessment. "What this is really about is the precious right to vote," she interrupted a colleague when he became too technical for her.

Reason for the uproar: As of this week, the Supreme Court has been hearing an extreme case of gerrymandering - the practice by parties of redesigning constituencies in the US to shift political weight. The court is supposed to decide whether the process made possible by majority voting in the US is unconstitutional. It is also designed to determine whether there is an objective yardstick by which to determine when politicians are going too far. Supporters and opponents alike warn that the outcome will have consequences for elections across the country. In four years the constituencies in the USA will have to be redefined. There is a real "Gerrymandering festival like we have not yet seen," warned Smith.

The trigger for the dispute was the state of Wisconsin. After the 2010 congressional elections, in which the Republicans celebrated spectacular gains thanks to the Tea Party movement and wrested seats at all levels from the Democrats, the party found itself in a comfortable situation: the Conservatives not only had control of the Parliamentary Chamber and appointed the governor. At the same time, for the first time in ten years, a comprehensive constituency reform was due. The Republicans used this to redefine constituencies, deforming them to their own advantage. The result was "monstrous," says Keith Gaddie, an election expert at the University of Oklahoma, who had advised the party in Wisconsin with data and statistics at the time.

"It was the perfect storm"

Suddenly, Democratic voters were concentrated in a handful of constituencies, while Republicans had a clear majority in the rest of the state. The arithmetic games paid off: In the 2012 elections, the party received only 48.6 percent of the vote, but secured 60 of the 99 seats in the chamber. A swing state that had gone to Republicans and Democrats in the past has become a conservative stronghold. The interventions in Wisconsin are "the most extreme in modern history," ruled the election experts Nicholas Stephanopolous and Eric McGhee, who have examined the distortions, now in court.

But the problem is not limited to Wisconsin. After 2010, Republicans were in control of constituency reorganization in 21 states and Democrats in eight. "It was the perfect storm that allowed Republicans to tighten their position," says Keith Gaddie.

Thorsten Schröder

US correspondent, ZEIT ONLINE

to the author page

According to an analysis by the Associated Press, Republicans won up to 22 more seats in the House of Representatives in the 2016 congressional elections through the gerrymandering alone than would have been statistically expected - which has given them a comfortable instead of a narrow majority.

Ever better voter data and software exacerbate the problem. In the meantime, the parties can calculate thousands of different scenarios and determine which division creates the greatest possible advantages for their own share of the vote. The results have been viewed on Twitter in the past few days: frustrated citizens had posted pictures of their distorted constituencies to draw attention to the problem. However, experts like Gaddie point out that it is a problem that has nothing to do with left and right. "If the Democrats had been in the situation back then, they would have done the same," he believes.