Teaching students at IU about partisan gerrymandering is very easy. It requires only a map of the district in which they live.


What are some of the red flags that indicate a gerrymander? Split counties. Boundaries that just barely include (Bloomington) or exclude (Columbus) major towns or cities. Irregular shape. Failure to use logical and major features like Interstate highways, rivers, or county lines to create borders. Poor compactness. It's very safe to say that this district was drawn in a manner that took into account factors other than population and geography.

Redistricting is controlled by state legislatures – in Indiana's case the process involves both chambers. In 2001, when districts were last re-drawn, the legislature was split. Democrats narrowly controlled the House and Republicans had a lopsided advantage in the Senate (32-18). The result was therefore a mixed bag. Republican influence was significant but mitigated by the Democrats' precarious hold on the House. Compromises were made; the process was not nearly as one-sided as in other states with unified partisan control.

That said, what was the political motive underlying the image you see above? First, the GOP needed to minimize the impact of Bloomington, which is significantly more liberal than the rest of southern Indiana. Second, help Congressional Republicans make competitive a seat held by Democrats Lee Hamilton (1965-1999) and Baron Hill (1999-2005) since the invention of fire.

Bloomington is a hot potato in the redistricting process. Having it in one's district would benefit liberal candidates and hurt conservatives. The irregular shape of the 9th District, which appears to have some sort of cancerous outgrowth that reaches out to engulf Bloomington, is a function of efforts to "balance" the liberal town with a wide swath of ultra-conservative but sparsely populated southern Indiana. This provides an advantage to Republicans in adjacent districts, sparing them the challenge of dealing with Bloomington. It also creates, or so statewide Republicans hoped, a 9th District that the GOP might reasonably hope to contest if not win. In other words, if they couldn't make it majority-Republican they wanted to make the Democrats sweat over it. Did it work?

Cue the news that Mike Sodrel is challenging incumbent Baron Hill in 2008. If this sounds familiar, that's because this is the fourth consecutive election in which these two have squared off. That's right. In 2002, Hill won with barely over 50% of the vote. Sodrel won by less than 1100 votes in 2004, one of the narrowest Congressional races in years. Hill won his seat back in 2006 by a slightly larger margin. Both parties expect it to be tooth-and-nail competitive again in 2008. As the graphic in the linked WSJ article shows, increasing amounts of money, national media attention, and interest from the national parties have accompanied the close results.

Most folks know almost nothing about redistricting, yet it powerfully impacts the competitiveness and outcomes of legislative races. Redistricting and reapportionment have become pitched battles on multiple fronts – political, legislative, and legal (redistricting plans almost inevitably end up the subject of numerous lawsuits and legal challenges based on the provisions of the Voting Rights Act) – conducted by self-interested legislators with personal and partisan motivations. The amount of manipulation done to district boundaries and the varying motives for doing so leave us to wonder: Are you choosing your legislators or are your legislators choosing you?

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  • I can tell that this is your particular field of interest, and believe me when I say that you make it sound much, much more fascinating than basically anyone else I've seen write about it.

    My idea for the solution is that every state should allow the minority party to oversee the drawing of districts. That way, if they're good, they'll take control and the other party will get to redraw them again. But I know it would never happen, alas.

  • I've been thinking that redistricting could be something done by computer with a few inputs to guide the process. The overriding goal of computer drawn districts would be to avoid the very things you mention in your post: Split counties. Boundaries that just barely include or exclude major towns or cities. Irregular shape. Failure to use logical and major features like Interstate highways, rivers, or county lines to create borders. Poor compactness.

    Have you ever heard of anyone creating such a program?

  • I could write a Visual Basic script in ArcGIS that would do it, and I don't even know VB or GIS all that well. So yes, I'm confident that someone with a high level of knowledge could do such a thing.

  • Nice dissection, and a good example. Then there's the Bush administration's decision to cut the DOJ review that used to take place out of the loop, which occurred after a group of predominantly Republican lawyers at the DOJ concluded that Delay's redistricting had been wrong.

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