The 12 worst House districts: Experts label gerrymandering's dirty dozen
How do you know when you've seen a gerrymandered district? Maybe it looks like a duck or a snake, or a pair of earmuffs. Or maybe there's no obvious sign that the mapmakers played games with the contours in order to ensure a particular electoral outcome inside those boundaries.
The last contests using the current set of congressional maps are a year away. After that, the results of the 2020 census will be used for the redistricting of the entire country — assuring a fresh burst of gerrymandering by politicians with the power to draw maps designed for keeping themselves in power.
We asked half a dozen people who have studied the way American political maps are drawn to reveal their best examples of the most flagrant current gerrymandering. Of course there are plenty of ways to approach that task. In some cases, the really odd shapes make it easier. In others, experts need to dive deep into demographic data to discover the most egregious examples of packing and cracking.
Take our quiz on gerrymandered districts.
The experts we asked, in alphabetical order:
- Jason Fierman: founder and managing director of The Redistrict Network
- Justin Hill: deputy director of Take Back Our Republic and a campaign manager in North Carolina, one of the states most cited for excessive gerrymandering
- Christopher Lamar: a counsel at the Campaign Legal Center focused on redistricting
- Jen Miller: executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio
- Ashley Oleson: state director of the League of Women Voters of Maryland
- Samuel Wang: professor of neuroscience and director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project
Their choices are listed here, starting with the districts mentioned most often. Their rationales have been slightly edited to improve clarity and reduce repetition. Disagree with their list? Let us know which congressional districts you believe are wrongly excluded.
1. Beside Lake Erie
Fierman: Ohio's so-called "snake by the lake" 9th District, which stretches from Toledo to Cleveland, is so thin and strangely shaped that they actually drove to Lake Erie to monitor sea levels with respect to the contiguity of the district. They are concerned that climate change could make the district non-contiguous and consequently altered in the next round of redistricting.
Hill: Democrat Marcy Kaptur is never far from the shore when traveling her district. Comprising portions of Cuyahoga, Erie, Lorain, Lucas and Ottawa counties and bordering Michigan and Canada via Lake Erie, the narrow district is almost laughable — though it is probably the best place to visit in Ohio because of the beaches and Cedar Point amusement park.
Lamar: In May a panel of federal judges in Cincinnati described the district as "a bizarre, elongated sliver of a district that sever[s] numerous counties." The purpose for that nonsensical grouping is to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into a single district. The court held that the 9th is a blatant partisan gerrymander, but there will be no federal judicial remedy since the Supreme Court's ruling in June that the courts have no role in ending partisan gerrymandering.
Miller: The 9th was designed by the Republican who controlled state mapmaking in 2001 to get rid of a Democratic House member, by making two incumbents living more than 100 miles apart compete for one seat. The economic differences across the district are significant. The scientific industry is the largest employer in Cleveland, then represented by Dennis Kucinich, but science jobs are far less common in Kaptur's Toledo and fairly rare in the rural counties where either agriculture or tourism reign. The cultural differences couldn't be starker: Residents of Toledo are seven times more likely to root for the University of Michigan (Ohio State's rival since 1918) than those in Cleveland. And even tiny communities like Florence, with 2,400 residents, are represented by two different members of Congress. When large cities are packed together and small communities cracked apart, it becomes pretty obvious that constituents are being robbed of real representation.
2. Spreading from Baltimore
Oleson: Maryland is the shamefaced owner of the single worst gerrymander in the nation. The 3rd District mangles the central part of the state as it snakes its way northeast from Annapolis, then west, again eastward, and one more time northwest(ish) until it's close to the top of the state — passing in and out (and sometimes back in again) of four counties and Baltimore City. The district has been characterized by a federal judge as a "broken-winged pterodactyl lying prostrate across the state" and also likened to "blood spatter at a crime scene." With such a sprawl, it can be difficult for some communities to access their House member. At the League of Women Voters, we saw this when we sought to arrange an election forum in a district with a border 225 miles long; no one place was easily accessible to all the voters in the district.
Hill: Talk about a picture that belongs next to "gerrymandering" in the dictionary. Visually, Maryland's 3rd is atrocious. And the narrow nature of most of the district — constructed to favor Democrats — makes it difficult for residents to know whether they are physically in the district or not. Interestingly, the seat is held by Democrat John Sarbanes, the author of HR 1, the House-passed electoral reform package that includes a provision turning House redistricting over to independent commissions in every state.
3. Alabama's capital
Wang: The 7th District is living proof that racial gerrymandering is partisan gerrymandering, and vice versa. It is heavily Democratic and gives off several narrow tendrils that encompass major black population centers, including far-off Birmingham. In the special Senate election of 2017, Democrat Doug Jones won the statewide popular vote by 1.5 percentage points — yet the only district he carried was the 7th, which is 63 percent African-American. Without these contortions, Alabama's seven-member House delegation could quite possibly have a second Democratic — and potentially black — member in addition to Terri Sewell. For a state with 25 percent black population and 34 percent Democratic vote in 2016, that wouldn't be a crazy outcome at all.
Hill: It's not so much the entirety of the districts themselves but the way they divide up Montgomery County, home to the capital city. The 2nd District takes the center of the county with the eastern portions in the 3rd and the western portions in the 7th, the state's lone reliably Democrat seat. Race and ideology factor into this carveout as Montgomery heavily votes Democrat, and the portion of the county in the 2nd went "blue" by a 22-point margin in the midterm — but was still offset by the overwhelmingly "red" tone of the rest of the district, which re-elected Republican Martha Roby.
4. Baton Rouge
Fierman: Louisiana's 6th District owes its strange shape to the 2nd District, which looks like it's been inserted inside the 6th and was drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The black voting age population of the 6th is 21.5 percent. The reason that percentage is not higher is because in 2011 Republicans moved a large number of African-Americans who live on the north side of Baton Rouge into the heavily Democratic 2nd. The result was an extremely packed majority-minority district that reaches New Orleans and looks almost surrounded by a very oddly shaped and disfigured district. (Cedric Richmond has held the 2nd since it was drawn.)
Lamar: The 6th, held by Republican Garrett Graves, is highly gerrymandered to ensure it has remained consistently red. It selectively fractures the city of Baton Rouge into two. It combines the predominantly white neighborhoods of south Baton Rouge with its suburbs and some coastal parishes. Meanwhile, it excludes the predominantly black neighborhoods of northern Baton Rouge, which are instead incorporated into the 2nd, which takes in New Orleans and is the only safely blue district in the state.
5. Western Maryland
Fierman: The 6th District shared center stage in the Supreme Court decision that federal courts have no role in settling claims of partisan gerrymandering. Democrats conceded their explicit goal was to move enough voters around to dilute GOP voting power and defeat the incumbent Republican congressman. As the definition of gerrymandering is to draw lines to give the people in power strategic advantage, and the Democrats admitted doing so, this is clearly one of the country's most gerrymandered districts.
Wang: Now held by Democrat David Trone, the 6th was drawn by Democrats to pack as many Republican voters as possible into a single meandering district. In the Supreme Court' oral arguments, the two justices living in Maryland, John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh, showed great familiarity with the details of their state's political geography in excoriating the gerrymander. Still, they declined to act to rein in this offense — or a statewide offense in North Carolina. Instead, they left the work to individual states.
6. Suburban Houston
Fierman: The 2nd District, held since the start of the year by Dan Crenshaw, is the result of extreme Republican gerrymandering in Texas. If the district were less oddly shaped and contorted it would actually be quite difficult for a Republican to win in this area. Demographic and population shifts show that the Houston metropolitan area is becoming increasingly more Democratic. It recently took Crenshaw five days and 100 miles to run from one end of his district to the other.
Fierman: If the capital of Texas, and its fourth-largest city, was all in one congressional district, it would most certainly be a deep blue bastion. Instead the Austin area is chopped up and dispersed among six different districts. The result is a diced-up and cracked capital with a big delegation, but most of the members aren't focused on the issues affecting Austin's inhabitants. And five of the districts (the 10th, 17th, 21st, 25th and 31st) are now represented by Republicans — meaning Austin's own liberal veteran, Lloyd Doggett of the 35th District, is the only Democrat representing the liberal city.
8. Metro Atlanta
Hill: From a visual perspective, Georgia's map is among the stronger ones you will currently see. The districts are largely fair and contiguous, and they represent a strong upgrade over the gerrymandered mess created when the Democrats were in charge of drawing the map the early 2000s. That said, there's an issue with the three counties that are the most populous in the state and form the core of Atlanta's metropolitan area. They are subdivided to a troubling extent. Three House districts (the 4th, 7th and 10th ) come into Gwinnett County; three (the 6th, 11th and 13th) have parts of Cobb County and four different members represent Fulton County: Democrats John Lewis (the 5th), Lucy McBath (the 6th) and Austin Scott (the 13th) as well as Republican Barry Loudermilk (the 11th). Having a county split three or more ways is less than ideal for its residents.
9. Northwestern Ohio
Hill: Ohio's 4th District is known as "the duck," with its bill up in the northern counties just under Lake Erie. It has no defining quality or characteristic. Portions are near Cleveland, parts are close to Columbus, and another portion is near Dayton. In various previous shapes the 4th has been in Republican hands since 1937 and is currently represented by Jim Jordan, arguably one of our nation's most conservative officials. But the district is also home to Oberlin, which is regarded as the state's most liberal place.
10. Metro Detroit
Wang: Michigan's 14th District jams together the African-American-dominated cities of Pontiac and Detroit, 31 miles apart. Its convoluted shape has packed in as many Democratic voters as possible, and they're currently represented by Brenda Lawrence. Email correspondence among GOP operatives in 2011, obtained by Michigan news outlets, included one summarizing the party's control over the House mapmaking: "In a glorious way that makes it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties into only four districts," the 14th among them.
Lamar: The highly unusual shape of Illinois' 4th District — sideways earmuffs with parts only the width of a city street — seems to make it an open-and-shut case of gerrymandering. But it provides an important lesson that a weirdly shaped district is not automatically a gerrymandered one. While strange shapes can be used to crack and pack voters, the 4th's unusual shape connects two Hispanic and solidly Democratic communities, and combining them allows Latinos in the city to have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. After this district was created, its voters elected Luis Gutierrez as the first Hispanic member of Congress from the Midwest. When he retired last year, the voters' successor of choice was Jesus "Chuey" Garcia.
12. North Carolina campuses
UPDATE: These districts have been dropped to the bottom of the list because they won't be used again. A new congressional map for 2020 was redrawn by the Republcian-majority General Assembly in November to settle a lawsuit alleging the map described here so favored the GOP that it violated the state Constitution's "fair elections" clause.
Fierman: North Carolina A&T State University is the largest historically black college in America. In 2011, Republicans won a majority in the General Assembly and packed black voters and A&T students into the 12th District. In 2016, the court ruled that district was a racial gerrymander and ordered the drawing of new maps. The result was an example of cracking: A&T is divided between two districts that are reliably Republican, the 6th held by Mark Walker and the 13th represented by Ted Budd.
Lamar: Federal courts held that the long, snake-like 12th District was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander because it packed too many black voters and A&T students into one district. Rather than preserving A&T as an obviously distinct unit in the redistricting process, the new map split the university down the middle, which effectively dilutes the significant voting power of the university's 10,000 students. The 6th and 13th are both represented by white, male Republicans.
Hill: The 4th was so bad it had to be redrawn. The result still isn't exactly a beauty — two separate shapes held together by a thin connection. While the district still includes Raleigh and Chapel Hill, it formerly included Durham — placing the Duke and North Carolina campuses in one district. The seat is held comfortably by Democrat David Price, who won with 72 percent in 2018.
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