John Oliver explains how gerrymandering, or “politicians’ crazy lines,” hurts democracy

Their crazy decisions count.
Their crazy decisions count.
Image: Screenshot from HBO
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One of the gravest structural problems in American democracy is gerrymandering, the practice of “drawing voting districts in a way that creates unfair advantages to whoever happens to be drawing the line,” says John Oliver.

The British comedian was referring specifically to partisan gerrymandering, which, unlike racial gerrymandering, is not illegal according to US laws. It is “partly responsible for giving Republicans such an edge in the House of Representatives,” says Oliver in yesterday’s (April 9) episode of Last Week Tonight.

He notes, for example, that the number of Republicans elected in the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio are “way out of proportion” to popular-vote percentages. “You wouldn’t expect Neapolitan ice cream that’s 70% strawberry. That’s not okay,” he says.

In most US states, the drawing of congressional districts is essentially controlled by the legislators themselves. It means, as Oliver explains, a majority party can either cram as many as opposition voters as possible into just few districts, or spread them out thinly over a bunch of districts to dilute their impact. The so-called “cracking and packing” technique is more or less the same as table assignments at a wedding, Oliver says.

“You can either break up your eight awful relatives and spread them out over different tables, or you can pack them all together in one insuperable table of the damned.”

Congressional gerrymandering is a not-so-secret weapon for both Republicans and Democrats. As Oliver notes, when Republicans won the majority of state houses in 2010, they redrew the map in those states to ensure they could send more members to the House in 2012; in 2001 Democrats did the same after taking control of the states of Maryland and Illinois.

“In a democracy, the question of who gets to draw the map should not have as much significance as it currently does,” Oliver says. He notes that the US Supreme Court may limit for the first time (paywall) partisan gerrymandering in an upcoming ruling this year, and that there are calls for the establishment of independent commissions to draw legislative maps.

“The foundation of democracy is built on the idea that everybody’s vote should count equally… whoever we are, however poor our decisions,” says Oliver in an inspiring speech toward the end of his show, while inviting people including a Quidditch player, a Scientologist, a unicyclist, a baker of erotic pastries, and “everyone’s racist grandma” onto the stage.

“Election results should not be the results of politicians’ crazy lines,” he says. “They should be the result of our own crazy decisions.”