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Behold, the dreaded gerrymander

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The term “gerrymander” gets its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Gerry helped design a district that was so funny-looking that one legislator said it looked like a salamander. (Courtesy Jared Rodriguez/Truthout via Flickr)
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Have you ever wondered how political district lines are drawn? Who makes these decisions and why does it matter? The answers to these questions are critical to the future of our democracy, and they are also the reason why our country is so f—ed.

If you think American voters are choosing their elected officials, you’re wrong. In the majority of states, politicians are choosing their voters. In 37 states, officials are drawing their own district lines and are doing it in a way that ensures their own party remains in power. This practice is also known as “gerrymandering” — drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s done to disadvantage voters based on race, political leanings and economic status, or to shore up seats for incumbents.

I know, it’s hard to believe it’s legal.

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District lines in the states are redrawn every 10 years after each census, to redistribute voters as populations shift. In most states, the lines are redrawn by the political party in power. The term “gerrymander” gets its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who, in 1812, helped design a district that was so funny-looking that one legislator said it looked like a salamander. Since 1812, gerrymandering has become a common practice to draw district lines to manipulate an electorate.

Let’s see how this has played out in recent years …

In the 2012 election for the House of Representatives, it should have been a good year for the Democrats with President Barack Obama’s re-election. Nationwide, Democrats running for Congress earned 1.1 million more votes than Republicans, and yet, the Democrats lost 33 seats in the House. This was only possible because the maps were drawn in such a way to put the Democrats at a disadvantage.

In Pennsylvania that year, Democrats won 51 percent of the popular vote in Congressional races. But they only won 5 out of 18 House seats because Pennsylvania Republicans drew the state’s Congressional district lines to protect their own.

Democrats are just as guilty of this in states they control. In New York in 2012, Democrats received 66 percent of the popular vote in Congressional races, but they won 21 out of 27 House seats in that state, or 78 percent.

But let’s be clear: Republicans are way better at this than Democrats. After the last census in 2010, the GOP poured more than $30 million into redrawing district lines all over the country. They called it “Red Map,” short for the Redistricting Majority Project. It helped them gain huge numbers of seats in Congressional districts and state legislatures, and it paid big dividends. In 2014, a Washington Post analysis found that eight of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the United States were drawn by Republicans.

The worst part about gerrymandering is not in these numbers but in its corrosive effect on our democracy, because redistricting not only affects which legislators are elected, but also how they choose to govern. When politicians draw their own lines to make their districts safe, the less moderate they become.

If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise with Democrats. Ever.

Safe districts also lead to depressed voter turnout and less voter engagement. Why bother turning out when the result seems preordained? This is not a healthy situation for a democracy that is supposed to be defined by political competition.

But there are a few reasons to have hope. First, several court rulings have dealt a blow to gerrymandering, striking down districts that clearly were drawn along racial lines. The most important of these cases is Whitford v. Gill, which found that districts in Wisconsin could not be drawn for intentionally partisan reasons. The Supreme Court will either affirm or overrule this case in 2017, and it could lead to the redrawing of district lines all over the country.

Here in California, our district lines are drawn by a Citizens Redistricting Commission, taking line-drawing out of the hands of politicians and giving it to a body comprised by an equal number of left- and right-leaning voters. According to good government group Common Cause, there are efforts afoot in North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and several other states to push through similar redistricting reform before the 2020 census. Fingers crossed.

President Obama himself has pledged to make redistricting his focus after his presidency, and he has created a new group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. He recognizes the threat that gerrymandering has on our democratic institutions.

“If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president,” Obama said. “We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”

I look forward to seeing what he has up his sleeve.

Alix Rosenthal is a municipal attorney, nasty woman and progressive activist who mentors and trains women to run for political office. She can be found on Twitter at @alixro and her blog is at www.votealix.com.

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