The Different Angles of Gerrymandering

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Collecting, analyzing, and reporting with data can be daunting. The person that SAGE Publishing — the parent of MethodSpace — turns to when it has questions is Diana Aleman – editor extraordinaire for SAGE Stats and U.S. Political Stats. And now she is bringing her trials, tribulations, and expertise with data to you in a monthly blog, Tips with Diana. Stay tuned for Diana’s experiences, tips, and tricks with finding, analyzing and visualizing data. View Diana’s blog HERE.

The recent news that Justice Anthony Kennedy will retire from the U.S. Supreme Court this summer has thrown everyone for a loop. As I write this, politicians, news pundits, and voters are debating the implications of Justice Kennedy’s retirement on decisive topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage as President Trump considers candidates for the court’s vacancy. One decisive and unresolved issue that the president’s nominee is likely to influence with his or her vote is partisan gerrymandering and the extent to which it dilutes voting power and therefore impacts U.S. elections.

However, unless you’re a political science major it may be difficult to grasp why federal and state politicians are fighting over congressional gerrymandering. What is gerrymandering and how exactly do changing congressional boundaries affect who we elect? Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating district boundaries to benefit one group over another. Historically, gerrymandering has been driven by racial and political motivations to control who is in power, and more importantly, who is not in power. Although reading about the history of gerrymandering is informative, visualizing the physical changes in congressional districts is a fantastic way to learn and understand the practice.

The breakdown: North Carolina as an example

North Carolina, for example, is a great case study for understanding the electoral impact of gerrymandering. By updating the selected year for the district map on the left, you can observe that prior to the mid-1990s North Carolina elected a majority of Democratic candidates before turning red in 1994. This change in power was due to Republican gerrymandering that went into effect in 1994. Since that time, North Carolina flipped has been for the most reliably red except for a brief number of years between 2008 and 2010.

Gerrymandering is also well known for creating odd-shaped districts. In fact, the 12th congressional district in North Carolina is usually cited as one of the most complex districts in the country. It has even been the subject of multiple legal challenges alleging racially-motivated gerrymandering. Using the map below, you can see how District 12 boundaries have changed over the past two decades. Observing this political struggle in action is a powerful way to understand how the Democratic and Republican parties have successfully used gerrymandering as a tool to achieve their own political interests.

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