Colorado in the national gerrymandering picture | Cronin and Loevy


Gerrymandering is the political crafting of safe election districts for one’s own political party and less safe or competitive election districts for your partisan opponents. It is among the oldest dirty tricks in American politics, and perhaps the only legalized form of vote stealing left in the United States.

Voters ideally pick their elected officials, but under gerrymandering in most states it is elected officials who, in effect, pick their voters.

The word “gerrymandering” originated in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry created a voting district that looked like a salamander. But drawing district lines to favor a political party goes back to the “rotten boroughs” that guaranteed the election of certain representatives to the English Parliament in the 13th century.

Alas for Elbridge Gerry. His name has been wrongfully attached do a redistricting plan that he did not author but strongly backed. Furthermore, his redistricting plan was in effect for only one year.

Coloradans should not get too upset that their state legislature has been gerrymandered to heavily favor the Democratic Party. Gerrymandering is the norm, not the exception, for state legislatures in the United States.

Further, gerrymandering has existed in the U.S. since colonial times and will continue to exist far into the future, mainly because it is a complex and compelling issue that seems to defy correction.

These are the conclusions of political scientist Nick Seabrook of North Florida University, writing in his book, “One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America.”

Seabrook notes that Colorado used an independent redistricting committee to redraw the boundary lines of its state legislative districts following the 2020 U.S. Census.

Instead of coming up with a fair redistricting, however, the independent redistricting committee came under the influence of Democratic Party lobbyists and gerrymandered both houses of the Colorado Legislature strongly Democratic.

In the state House, the redistricting committee created 30 safe Democratic seats to only 19 safe Republican seats. In the Senate, they fashioned 15 safe Democratic seats with just nine safe Republican seats.

In describing how independent redistricting commissions can be compromised by political parties, Seabrook wrote that “local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups” are called to testify before the commission in support of a redistricting plan that just happens to coincide with the Democratic Party’s interests.

That is clearly what happened in Colorado’s redistricting of the Legislature for the 2022 general election.

Seabrook begins his book with descriptions of the age-old art of gerrymandering:

“At its heart, gerrymandering involves a concerted effort to make the votes of certain groups of people matter more than the votes of others.

“Nothing pleases politicians more than knowing that their district is safe, that their majority is safe, that no matter which direction the winds of popular sentiment may be blowing, their shelter is well built, sturdy, and prepared to weather the storm.”

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Seabrook’s book takes a historical approach. It is filled with interesting tidbits from American history that have a gerrymandering angle. Here is one concerning Abraham Lincoln:

Before being elected president of the United States, Lincoln was the victim of a gerrymander. In 1858 he ran for U.S. senator from Illinois and engaged in a famous series of debates with his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas.

At that time, U.S. senators were selected by their state legislature rather than a popular vote. The Democrats had gerrymandered the Illinois legislature and, although the Republicans received the most votes, the Democrats won majorities in both the Illinois Senate and House.

It was those unfair majorities in the Illinois legislature that selected Democrat Douglas over Republican Lincoln.

Seabrook is upset by the way both political parties in the United States openly set out to gerrymander the state legislatures to their political benefit. He makes a particular example of the national Republicans.

Following the 2010 U.S. Census, the national Republican Party embarked on Redmap, a plan to use gerrymandered redistricting to ensure Republican majorities in state legislatures throughout the nation. Wisconsin was one of the targeted states. Outside money was brought into Wisconsin to finance the project.

Seabrook’s research revealed that partisan gerrymanders favoring the Republicans were instituted for the state legislatures in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

These state legislative gerrymanders were in effect for more than a decade and showed no sign of being “seriously threatened, let alone reversed.”

The impact of modern computing on redistricting is a major concern to author Seabrook. He writes that Colonial gerrymanders were amateurish and relatively ineffective when compared with the computer-driven gerrymandering of the present day.

American elections now take place in the mainframes of supercomputers, Seabrook notes, where redistricting professionals decide for the next 10 years whether districts will be safe Democratic, safe Republican or competitive. Competitive districts can be won by either political party and thus set up “real elections.”

As for redistricting reform, Seabrook favors the independent commission system such as the one currently in use in Colorado. He sees the independent redistricting commission as the “gold standard” for ending gerrymandering, yet he warns the final result often leads to the same gerrymandering the independent commission form hopes to avoid. That happened in Colorado.

Both political parties now have national organizations devoted to gerrymandering state legislatures on behalf of the political parties. The Democratic National Redistricting Committee is headed by former U.S attorney general Eric Holder. The Republicans have the National Republican Redistricting Trust led by Adam Kincaid.

Both political parties thus have national committees staffed with skilled political operatives openly working to gerrymander state legislatures. The book leaves us with the final thought that it is almost impossible to get political parties seeking political advantage out of the redistricting process.

Seabrook wants the redistricting process to be in the hands of “map makers, attorneys, data scientists, and redistricting professionals” who are completely separate from the two major political parties. Sadly, his book does not offer a method for accomplishing that goal.