Many politicians in Western countries seem to understand the importance of fair elections. They boast about their own democratic system, and how it indicates their superiority over countries such as Russia and China, which are generally perceived to have fewer and more poorly executed elections. But are Western elections really “democratic”?
Gerrymandering is the act of creating unfair political boundaries. This can be done in many ways, and provides one political party an advantage over other parties. In many cases, if one party is preferred by the general populace in the popular vote, gerrymandering can result in a larger than expected margin of victory for that party. In some cases, the modification of ridings or voting districts can even lead to a party that lost the popular vote winning a large number of seats in parliament. Evidently, this type of rigging the democratic system is harmful to the election process, especially in locations such as the USA, where it is prevalent.
There are two main forms of gerrymandering, both of which are deeply frowned upon and can have drastic impacts on elections. These forms are known as cracking and packing. Cracking is the process of separating voters that have historically voted for the same party (eg. the blue party voters) into different ridings that have large concentrations of opposite-minded voters (eg. red voters). The red party voters would outvote the blue party in each riding, meaning the red voters would have no representation in parliament. On the other hand, packing involves forming ridings that are highly concentrated with like-minded voters, so that a large number of voters ultimately end up with only a small number of seats in the house. Combined, these two methods can give one political party a large advantage over other ones.
Furthermore, to compound the problem of gerrymandering, the boundaries for ridings are redrawn infrequently. They are also typically created by elected officials or by non-legislators who were appointed by elected officials. First and foremost, boundaries are redrawn based on a census taken once every decade. This is probably unavoidable, as censuses and redrawing districts are long and methodical processes. Furthermore, elections are infrequent and do not require the constant changes of riding boundaries. Nonetheless, a lot can change in a decade, and these long periods of time can lead to unbalanced ridings in favour of one party. However, it is evident that the larger issue is the fact that ridings are mostly drawn by elected officials and their allies. For example, the state of New York forms a committee of both legislators and appointed non-legislators. In effect, this means that politicians are given the power to draw the ridings that elect them. This allows them to ensure the vote favours them on election day, prolonging their careers and ensuring they continue to make money.
To most people who understand how gerrymandering functions, it is seen as both unethical and undemocratic. Democracy is about providing the people with members of Parliament that can accurately represent their needs and wants in government. These representatives are meant to be chosen by the people. However, when gerrymandering is allowed, it enables politicians to choose their people. This gives the general populace of a country little to no power, especially those that are the victims of gerrymandering. Furthermore, gerrymandering allows for the marginalization of minority groups, especially those that generally vote together. Gerrymandering at its worst becomes a tool for corrupt politicians to stay in power, reduce the voting power of minority groups, and minimize the efforts of political opponents by preventing them from taking office.
Despite these various issues that gerrymandering brings up, it continues to be practiced as it’s legality is debated to this day. While there was a supreme court ruling in 2006 that declared gerrymandering that suppresses voters of certain ethnicities is illegal, the same ruling allowed gerrymandering for most other cases. This “undermines the will of the voter”, and continues to be a divisive issue that is simply seen as an “advantage of the party in power.”
There are, however, many ways in which political boundaries can be draw in more mathematically fair manners. In some ways, gerrymandering and mathematically disproportionate parliaments can be avoided almost entirely. A Youtuber known as CGP Grey has covered some of these solutions.
He argues that one of the most obvious ways to prevent gerrymandering is to create a nonpartisan committee to create electoral boundaries, ensuring that decision makers are unbiased and that a fair and proportional vote can be achieved. However, these committees generally group similar areas together, forming ridings that are safe for one party, and where the opposition has virtually no chance of winning. This is not ideal, as it does not promote progress or change within government. There is also the possibility that the commission is bribed to favour one party.
The second method he describes is completely mathematical and unbiased, known as the shortest split-line method. The procedure is simple: after a census is taken, the shortest line that splits the population in half is used as a border to create two electoral districts. The same process can be performed on the resulting two ridings and can be continued until the desired number of political districts are created. These ridings may still create disproportionate governments, but the possibility is relatively small and would be completely unintentional.
Finally, CGP Grey suggest employing gerrymanderers or people who understand how to rig political elections, but instead incentivize them to create representative and fair ridings. This method may seem illogical first, but may ultimately prove to me the most foolproof solution to gerrymandering. For example, state and federal governments in the United States could easily hire a committee to draw ridings that ensure fair electoral districts, where any party could win the election in any district during any given election.
Sadly, despite the many ethical and legal questions surrounding gerrymandering, and the several solutions that have been provided and are implementable, the likelihood of change remains low. Generally, political parties in power make most decisions for a government’s future. However, simultaneously, the party in power has the authority to redraw election boundaries in their favour once a decade. As a result, it seems impossible for political parties to illegalize a tool that provides them with future security and income. Yet, if gerrymandering remains, the democratic system will continue to be both broken and fractured, and is not as superior to other international systems as many would like to believe.