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Panelists air possible solutions to age-old political problem of gerrymandering

  • U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern speaks during a forum titled “Gerrymandering Steals Elections: Learn How It’s Done and How to Stop It,” Monday, at Smith College. Clare Higgins and state Rep. Paul Mark listen. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, speaks during a forum titled "Gerrymandering Steals Elections: Learn How It's Done and How to Stop It", Monday, Feb. 12, 2018 at Smith College. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nestor Guillen, left, who is an assistant professor of mathematics and a gerrymandering data specialist, Adam Hilton, center, who is a visiting lecturer in politics at Mount Holyoke College, and Josh Silver, who is the co-founder of Represent.US, wait for the start of a forum titled "Gerrymandering Steals Elections: Learn How It's Done and How to Stop It", Monday, Feb. 12, 2018 at Smith College. All three spoke during the event. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • U.S. Rep. James McGovern speaks speaks during a forum titled "Gerrymandering Steals Elections: Learn How It's Done and How to Stop It", Monday, Feb. 12, 2018 at Smith College. Beside him are, from left, Clare Higgins, Nestor Guillen and Adam Hilton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nestor Guillen, who is an assistant professor of mathematics and a gerrymandering data specialist, speaks during a forum titled "Gerrymandering Steals Elections: Learn How It's Done and How to Stop It", Monday, Feb. 12, 2018 at Smith College. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • U.S. Rep. James McGovern speaks speaks during a forum titled "Gerrymandering Steals Elections: Learn How It's Done and How to Stop It", Monday, Feb. 12, 2018 at Smith College. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — In an increasingly divisive political climate, the issue of partisan gerrymandering is one that does not get much national attention. For many, gerrymandering seems like a confusing term — a problem that only the most devoted policy wonks could understand.

A group of elected officials, academics and a grassroots organizer tried to change those misconceptions about gerrymandering at a panel discussion Monday night at the Smith College Campus Center.

Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, University of Massachusetts professors Nestor Guillen and Adam Hilton, along with Josh Silver, were moderated by former Northampton mayor Clare Higgins as they explained gerrymandering to a group of around 50, along with potential alternatives to the issue.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of a state’s legislative districts in order to give one political party an advantage over another in the House of Representatives. Electoral districts can be maneuvered in favor of a party by either “packing” supporters of another party into only one district or “cracking” them through many, so that one party cannot gain a majority and win a seat.

“I think the biggest threats to our politics and our democracy are money and extreme partisan gerrymandering,” McGovern said. “Congress ought to be more reflective of the overall popular view of this country. I think that’s the way our founding fathers envisioned it to be.”

After the census every 10 years, districts must be redrawn in each state to properly account for any changes in representation due to population. The issue of favored manipulation arises because in many states districts are redrawn by partisan state legislatures rather than independent, non-partisan commissions.

Mark, chairman of the House Committee on Redistricting, began with a brief summary about gerrymandering, including its origin and history. The word combines an early 19th-century Massachusetts governor and later vice president, Elbridge Gerry, with salamander, referring to the shape of one of the redrawn legislative districts he approved.

Mark explained that even though the Massachusetts Legislature is tasked with redistricting, a bipartisan committee after the 2010 census held hearings across the state to aid in more fairly representing constituents during the process.

“We’ve evolved a lot in Massachusetts,” Mark said.

But he also raised the concept of “pre-emptive gerrymandering,” under which the census itself can be manipulated to underrepresent certain groups by making it difficult for them to complete.

McGovern agreed that the census may not gather the entire demographic picture of the United States as ordered by the Constitution. He said the Trump administration was poised to influence the census to make it more difficult for some people to fill out completely and accurately, making it challenging to accurately draw districts.

“The census is incredibly important,” McGovern said. “I’m going to tell you right now that this White House is going to work overtime to make it difficult, if not impossible, to count everybody in this country. They don’t want everybody counted. Or at least in certain areas they don’t want everybody counted.”

To explain the statistical reasoning behind redistricting, Guillen, a professor of mathematics, compared different election data in states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. In North Carolina, Guillen explained that although Democrats won 50.6 percent of the vote in 2012, they only won four seats, compared to 48.75 percent of the vote that won the Republicans nine seats.

Hilton, a professor of political science, said that although the problem of gerrymandering in the United States is rampant, there were ways to make the system fairer and more representative.

“The source of things that we find to be wrong with gerrymandering are actually problems rooted in winner-take-all systems,” Hilton said. “The problem isn’t redistricting — the problem is districting.”

Hilton explained that instead of one member winning a seat due to a majority vote, a system of proportional representation with multimember districts would create a more representative Congress. Proportional representation, Hilton argues, would consist of larger districts composed of a few seats, which would be awarded to a party consistent with the proportion of the vote it received.

“We don’t want less gerrymandering,” Hilton said. “We want fair elections.”

Josh Silver, founder and director of Represent.Us, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization aimed at reducing corruption in government, said that gerrymandering should be looked at as part of a larger problem of dishonesty in government.

“The way that candidates run, the way we vote and the way that politicians govern is essentially corrupt,” Silver said. “It’s antiquated, and it’s broken. The last federal election cost over $7 billion.”

Event organizer Mary McKitrick said she wanted to gather interest in the issue through a more academic and informational approach.

“The issue is regrettably evergreen,” McKitrick said. “But it’s an important issue to talk about.”

After the event, McKitrick said she was happy she was able to bring together a panel to talk about the issue of gerrymandering.

“The panel went more smoothly and was more successful than I had imagined,” she said. “To start with the nuts and bolts of the system, to then move into the academic field with the mathematics and political science behind it, to how someone can get involved really was uplifting to me.”