John Oliver Breaks Down the Ways Politicians Use Gerrymandering to Swing Elections

John Oliver
“In a democracy, the question of who gets to draw the map should not have as much significance as it currently does," says Oliver. Last Week Tonight

Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing the boundaries of a legislative district to favor a particular political party. You probably already knew this. What you might not have known is the alarming extent to which it is used to influence U.S. elections, which John Oliver dutifully explained on Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight.

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Gerrymandering dates back to the early 1800s, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry redrew a congressional district into an absurd shape that the pundits of the day felt resembled a salamander. (Yes, this is actually how "gerrymandering" got its name.) In recent years, however, technology has enhanced the effectiveness on agenda-based district mapping.

"In the age of computers, you can gerrymander with scientific precision," University of Virginia professor A.E. Dick Howard says in a clip featured by Oliver. "You can run in and out of alleys and up and down streets, and carefully include and exclude whichever voters you want in one district or another. It's become a very precise science."

Or, as Oliver puts it, gerrymandering is "one of the few remaining types of science in which the Republican party currently believes."

The two main ways a political party can gerrymander in their favor are through "packing" or "cracking." Packing refers to the practice of loading up as few districts as possible with as many opposition party voters as possible. Cracking is spreading out opposition party voters over as many districts as possible so they're not able to form a majority anywhere.

"Try to think of it as table assignments at a wedding," says Oliver. "You can either break up your eight awful relatives and spread them out over different tables, or you can pack them all together into one insufferable table of the damned."

John Oliver
John Oliver used graphics from the Washington Post to illustrate how easily voters can be gerrymandered to benefit a particular party. Last Week Tonight

These practices are highly effective. In 2014, 44 percent of Pennsylvania voted for Democratic representatives for Congress, but 13 of the state's 18 districts were represented by Republicans. In Ohio, 40 percent voted Democratic, but 12 of the state's 16 districts were represented by Republicans.

North Carolina in 2016 was forced to redraw its legislative map after its old one was thrown out by a federal court because of racial gerrymandering. State Republicans didn't make any attempt to conceal their agenda when drawing the new one. "We want to make clear that to the extent that we are going to use political data in drawing this map, it is to gain partisan advantage on the map," state Rep. David R. Lewis said at the time. "I want that criteria to be clearly stated and understood."

As a result, North Carolina Republicans won 53 percent of the vote for congressional representatives, but the party ended up controlling 77 percent of the state's seats in the U.S. House.

Republicans have been able to rig legislative maps in their favor because the maps are mostly drawn by politicians. When the GOP won a majority of state houses in 2010, it meant Republicans won the right to redraw districts that would decide future elections. Two years later, in 2012, Democrats running for Congress won 1.1 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans sent 33 more representatives to Washington, D.C.

None of this seems on the level, but it is. Redistricting is necessary because population changes over time, as do the demographics of particular areas. So-called "communities of interest" need to be kept together, and though it is illegal to gerrymander based solely on race, it is entirely legal to do so based on politics. Both parties are guilty of this.

Oliver suggests that instead of politicians, districts should be redrawn by independent commissions, a practice which some states have already begun to implement. In 37 states, districts are drawn by state legislators.

"There is something very important at stake here," Oliver says. "Lawmakers should not be allowed to dilute our votes by drawing their own lines and essentially picking their own voters."