# How to rig an election

Yesterday was online board games night with my friends, so I didn’t have time to write a blog entry. I picked up the grocery shopping in the morning, then picked up Scully from my wife’s work at lunch and took her to the Italian bakery. Oh that’s right, it was raining most of the morning.

I had four ethics classes to teach, including one of the older kids, on the topic of “how to Rig an Election”. I promised last post that I’d share some of my teaching examples, so here’s a crash course in how to gerrymander!

Let’s imagine this map is a state with 5 orange voters and 4 purple voters, for a total of 9. Let’s say we want this state to elect 3 representatives to Parliament. The way to get 3 representatives is to split the state into 3 smaller regions, and then each region elects one representative. If we split the state into 3 regions of 3 houses each by horizontal lines, we get more orange votes in two of them, so orange gets 2 representatives and purple gets 1. Is that fair?

If we split them up vertically, we get the same result. Two regions with 2 orange votes, so 2 orange representatives and 1 purple. But now let’s imagine you are a purple party politician, and you are given the job of drawing up the voting districts. Can you draw them differently, to give the purple party more than 1 representative?

Here’s one possible solution.

In this map we have 13 orange voters and 12 purple voters, for a total of 25. We want to split it up into 5 districts, with 5 voters each. Because orange has slightly more voters, a fair outcome might have 3 orange districts and 2 purple. Can we divide the districts so that purple wins 3 (or more!) districts?

Here’s one possible solution.

So by being careful about the way we draw the districts, we can change the outcome of the election, even though the voters don’t change their votes. This practice is called gerrymandering. Here’s a slightly different map of 25 voters. If we want to gerrymander this map to have 4 purple districts, we need to do the same thing, have a district with 5 orange voters in it. Can we manage to do that?

Here’s one possible solution.

The basic idea of gerrymandering is to create districts that contain as close as possible to 100% of the voters you want to lose, while other districts contain just over 50% of the voters you want to win. You spread out the voters you want to win into lots of districts, so they can win lots of districts, while concentrating the voters you want to lose into a small number of districts, so they only win a few of them. An obvious feature of gerrymandered districts is often the strange shapes.

In this map we have 20 orange voters and 16 purple voters, for a total of 36. We want to split it up into 6 districts. A fair outcome might have 4 orange districts and 2 purple, or 3 of each. Can we gerrymander this map so that purple wins 5 districts and orange only 1?

Notice I didn’t say the districts all have to be the same size! Here’s one possible solution. We can do this if we change the numbers a bit, and make some districts bigger than others. This is another trick that someone can use to control the outcome of an election.

Now let’s have a look at a few real electoral districts. (I show the kids a nice, almost rectangular district, which is not gerrymandered. Then I show them this:) This one is the 4th District of Illinois. Does this look reasonable?

Now let’s have a look at the voting district overlaid on a map of Chicago showing areas classified by the racial background of the majority of voters.

You can see that this district has deliberately been chosen to include almost only yellow areas, which corresponds to Hispanic people. See how carefully it’s been drawn to exclude the green areas! This district has been gerrymandered so that the Hispanic people of Chicago will only be able to elect one representative, rather than getting two or three if they had been spread out between multiple districts.

I go on to ask the kids their thoughts about all of this, and their opinions on who should draw up the maps of electoral districts, and why. The class also includes a discussion of different types of voter suppression. I’ve done this class with two different groups of kids now, and it’s been a real hit each time. I could see their eyes light up as they figured out how to gerrymander, and they were all very vocal about the unfairness of it!

Today I spent much of the morning housecleaning. We had a new mattress delivered today, so I had to strip the bed and get the old mattress ready to be carted away. We bought it just before Christmas, but they did quote us 2-4 weeks for delivery, so we expected it around now. We paid a tiny bit extra to ave them remove the old mattress for recycling too – much easier than us disposing of it ourselves.

After they delivered the mattress, and I waved the delivery guys off with a cheery “thank you” and wishing them a good afternoon, I was struck by a thought: If this was the USA, would I have been expected to have given them a tip? I’m again very thankful that I don’t live in a tipping culture.

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## 4 thoughts on “How to rig an election”

1. David Morgan-Mar says:

No, I didn’t want to spend extra time going into the story behind it.

1. Yerushalmi says:

You can see that this district has deliberately been chosen to include almost only yellow areas, which corresponds to Hispanic people. See how carefully it’s been drawn to exclude the green areas! This district has been gerrymandered so that the Hispanic people of Chicago will only be able to elect one representative, rather than getting two or three if they had been spread out between multiple districts.

The rationale in this particular case is actually the opposite. Illinois is a heavily Democratic state, and its districts are therefore generally drawn by the Democratic party. The district was drawn to ensure that there be a Democratic representative who is Hispanic; otherwise, splitting the Hispanics between two or three different districts would result in multiple Democratic representatives, all of whom are white. This was deliberately done to increase Hispanic representation – and it was the Republicans who filed suit to prevent it (and failed).

There are of course many examples of what you said – where all of the members of a group are stuffed into one district to prevent them from having majorities elsewhere – and this is generally done by Republicans. It just happens not to be the case in this instance.

Gerrymandering can introduce serious conflicts between the interests of a minority group and the interests of the party that they vote for. The Democrats are in constant tension between: Do we put all the black voters into one district to get a single black Democrat elected? Or do we split them up into multiple districts to help us get three Democrats elected, but none of them will be black?

In fact, the Civil Rights Act in certain cases requires that districts be gerrymandered in precisely the way depicted in the Chicago map, so as to ensure minority group representation in Congress – intended for their benefit, but perversely reducing their influence elsewhere.

Is it better to have one representative from your group, or to have the ability to pressure three representatives not of your group? These aren’t easy questions to answer.

1. David Morgan-Mar says:

Oh, that makes more sense! My friends and I were trying to work out why this district so painstakingly included Hispanic but not black voters. It didn’t make a lot of sense to us and our distant perspective on American politics from the other side of the Pacific.