Election Troubles: Gerrymandering, DREs & the Money Chase

July 26, 2006

The 2006 mid-term elections present an excellent opportunity to examine some major issues related to voting in the U.S. Three students readings are followed by suggestions for further student inquiry, reform proposals, and possible citizenship activities.

To the Teacher:

The 2006 mid-term elections present an excellent opportunity to examine some major issues related to voting in the U.S.: gerrymandered Congressional districts; problematic voting machines, especially those providing direct recording electronic (DRE) voting; efforts to prevent voters from exercising their franchise; and the escalating costs of running a political campaign and their impact on public policy.

Three readings lay out the basics of each issue. Following the readings are suggestions for further student inquiry, reform proposals, and possible citizenship activities.


Student Reading 1:

Troubles with the House

"Although our constitution framers gave the House of Representatives extraordinary powers and, of all the branches of government, the clearest accountability to the American people, that accountability has been destroyed beyond all recognition."
—Fair Voting and Democratic Research Center (www.fairvote.org)

On November 7, 2006, Americans will go to the polls to elect or reelect all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives for a two-year term. Based on recent political history, the odds are that a great majority of those running for another term will be reelected. How do we know this?

  • In four House elections since 1996 more than 98% of the incumbents have won, most by margins of 10% or more.
  • In 2002, 81 incumbents were unopposed by a major party candidate.
  • In 2004 only five incumbents lost and 90% of the incumbents won by landslides of at least 20%. In California all 53 incumbents won.
  • Partisan political control of the House of Representatives has changed just once in the past 26 elections.

"There are now about 400 safe seats in Congress," wrote Richard Pildes, a law professor at New York University. "The level of competitiveness has plummeted to the point where it is hard to describe the House as involving competitive elections at all these days." (Jeffrey Toobin, "The Great Election Grab," New Yorker, 12/8/03)


1. Gerrymandering

Members of the House of Representatives are elected from congressional districts that are regularly gerrymandered. The term gerrymander was coined from the last name of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1811 he approved the boundaries for a congressional district that, to mock him, someone said resembled a salamander. Salamander soon became gerrymander.

Following a census every 10 years, the U.S. constitution requires that the number of representatives allotted to each state be reapportioned up or down depending upon its population. Representatives lost by one state are gained by another. As a result, new congressional district lines become necessary. Drawing them is usually the job of the state legislature and the governor. The political party with a majority is likely to map them to increase its power. They often draw the lines so that the maximum number of districts will include a majority of voters supporting their party. The results: odd-shaped or gerrymandered districts.

Following the 2000 census, Texas redistricted. But after victories in the 2002 congressional elections, the Republican legislative majority set aside the tradition of redistricting once every ten years. In 2003 it mapped new lines favorable to the party. This redistricting produced six more Republican members for the House in the 2004 congressional elections.

Following a legal challenge, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 that the Texas legislature acted "with the sole purpose of achieving a Republican congressional majority." But in a 5-3 decision the Court said the case did not offer a "workable test" for deciding "how much partisan dominance is too much." In short, partisan gerrymandering is okay up to a point. But the Supreme Court has yet to say what that point is.

The Court also ruled, though, that the Texas legislature violated the Voting Rights Act in drawing boundaries for one southwestern district. It had removed 100,000 Mexican-Americans and replaced them with Anglo voters to give a Republican a better chance of winning his reelection. The Voting Rights Act guarantees minorities the right to "participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice." The Court ruling means that the Texas legislature must redraw the lines for this district, an action that will inevitably affect to some degree one or more other districts.

Gerrymandering is even more powerful today than in the past because legislators now have computerized information at their fingertips and methods for producing scientifically the desired partisan results.

"The self-dealing quality of legislators drawing districts for themselves or for their partisans has basically collapsed the enterprise," said Samuel Issacharoff, a law professor at New York University and an expert on redistricting. "There's an increasing sense of revulsion among people at this self-dealing. It is somewhat scandalous that there are no competitive elections anymore." (New York Times, 2/7/05)

2. Voting Rules that Favor Major Parties

Voting rules favor the election of candidates from either the Republican or the Democratic party. It is a winner-take-all system that enables the person with a plurality of the votes to win the seat.

Imagine a district in which there are four candidates for a House seat. The Republican wins 22,000 votes; the Democrat wins 20,000; a third-party candidate receives 14,000 and another third-party candidate wins 10,000. No candidate has a majority of the votes, but the Republican wins by a plurality even though 44,000 voters cast their ballots for other candidates, and even though more people voted for third-party candidates than for the winning Republican.

3. The Advantages of the Incumbent

The incumbent almost always has a big advantage over challengers.

Typically, the incumbent begins the process in a far better position. The district in most cases has a history of supporting the incumbent's party. And the incumbent may have been able to shore up that support by getting the district gerrymandered.

While in office, the incumbent can solve problems or do favors for constituents, while opposing candidates cannotóhence garnering even more support for the incumbent. This can have a corrupting effect, such as when an incumbent backs a measure to favor a rich supporter even though it is not in the best interests of the average voter.

Through what is known as the "franking privilege," an incumbent pays nothing to flood a district with supportive leaflets and brochures, something opposing candidates have to pay for. The incumbent is likely to be much more able than an opponent to raise campaign cash because he or she is in a position to support what the biggest givers want.

A very important result of diminished competitiveness in congressional elections is that primary elections, in which members of the same party compete to determine who will be the party's general election candidate, can become more important than the general election. (This is especially true in districts that historically vote strongly for one party or another and in districts that have been gerrymandered.)

"Members of the House now effectively answer only to primary voters who represent the partisan edge of both parties. As a result, collaboration and compromise between the parties have almost disappeared." (Toobin, 12/8/03)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How do you explain the opening quote? Why does the House have "the clearest accountability to the American people"? How has that accountability been "destroyed beyond all recognition"?

3. What is a gerrymandered district? What difference to voters does gerrymandering make? Why is gerrymandering easier to accomplish today than it was in the past?

4. How does the Supreme Court view gerrymandering?

5. How can a candidate win with less than a majority of the votes? Define plurality. What is a "winner-take-all" voting system? In the general election of 2004, did your representative win by a plurality or a majority?

6. What is an incumbent? What advantages does an incumbent have over a challenger?

7. What is a primary election? Is there to be or has there been such an election in your district? Who are the most likely voters in a primary? Why?

8. What is the "franking privilege"?

For further inquiry

1. Get a map showing your congressional district and find out how this map was prepared, by whom and when.

2. Is yours a "safe" congressional district (for the incumbent)? What makes it "safe," or, perhaps, "unsafe"? For how long has your representative in the House served?

3. How much money did your representative raise for the 2004 congressional campaign? Where did the money come from? (See, especially, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics,www.opensecrets.org, which is nonpartisan and reports on a range of campaign finance issues.)

4. How might the current system of mapping district lines be reformed? By a nonpartisan commission? As Fair Vote, a nonpartisan organization, argues, creating new district lines raises a number of issues and is more complicated than it appears to be. See its Voting and Democracy Research Center at www.fairvote.org for a detailed discussion. Included is "Redistricting Roulette," which gives the reader an opportunity to try his or her hand at creating fair congressional district boundaries.


Student Reading 2:

Troubles at the Polls

Americans won't soon forget the 2000 presidential election, when disastrous voting problems in Florida resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that made George W. Bush president. Florida's punch-card voting at many of its polling places and "hanging chads," bits of cardboard that didn't necessarily fall away when punched, led to uncertainties about a voter's intentions and became a national joke.

In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to prevent another fiasco and to promote computerized voting, called "direct recording electronic" (DRE) voting. But DRE voting machines have led to another controversy. The non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report in September 2005 after many complaints about the "security and reliability" of DRE voting. It cited studies that found that "it was possible to alter the files that define how a ballot looks and works so that the votes for one candidate could be recorded for a different candidateÖand [that] vendors installed uncertified versions of voting software." The GAO report concluded that the result was a "loss and miscount of votes" in the 2004 election (www.gao.gov)

Since the GAO report, examples of DRE problems have multiplied. In a March 2006 Chicago primary election voters used "touch-screen" and "optical scan" systems manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems. Technical problems and human errors resulted in a week-long delay before officials could tally all the votes (New York Times, 5/12/06).

Early in May, Harri Hursti, a security expert, analyzed Diebold electronic voting machines for Black Box Voting, Inc., a nonprofit group that has been critical of electronic voting. He found serious voting-machine flaws. Steven Levy, commenting on his report, wrote, "It requires only a few minutes of pre-election access to a Diebold machine to open that machine and insert a PC card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give control to the violator.  Worse, it's even possible for such ballot-tampering software to trick authorized technicians into thinking that everything is working fine, an illusion you couldn't pull off with pre-electronic systems." (Newsweek, 5/29/06)

According to Common Cause, 17 states, including the District of Columbia, "are at 'high' risk of having election results compromised due to problems with voting machines known as DREs." Another 23 states are at "mid-level risk" and 11 are at "low risk." (www.commoncause.org)

But punch cards, DREs, and other faulty voting equipment have not been the only troubles at America's polls. Others keep millions of Americans from voting or from having their votes counted if they did vote. The problems include:

  • Having partisan officials responsible for overseeing the counting of votes
  • Purging eligible voters from the lists of registered voters
  • Neglecting to process voter registration cards
  • Rejecting voter registration applications for minor technical faults
  • Failing to provide provisional ballots to voters who appear at the polls to vote but
    whose status is challenged
  • Forcing voters to wait on long lines for hours because officials have not provided enough voting machines or have reduced the number of polling places
  • Intimidating potential voters
  • Rigging recounts of votes

For more information on these problems, see "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio," a report released by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on an investigation into thousands of complaints by Ohio voters after the 2004 election (available atwww.house.gov/judiciary-democrats/ohiostatusrept1505.pdf). Also see Andrew Gumbel's "The Coming Ballot Meltdown: Ohio Could Be the Place Again," The Nation, July 17/24, 2006.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are the benefits and possible dangers of DREs?

3. Consider each of the methods named in the reading that might keep someone from voting. Is each one clear to you? Have there been any such problems in the students' district?

For further inquiry

1. What were the "multiple problems" in Florida during the 2000 presidential election?

2. What are additional problems with DREs and how might they be corrected? See, for example, the following websites of nonpartisan organizations: the Verified Voting Foundation,www.verifiedvotingfoundation.org, and Common Cause, www.commoncause.org.

3. What is the voting method in the students' district? Have there been any problems with it? If so, how have they been dealt with?

4. Ask students to prepare a questionnaire on issues and problems regarding voting in their district, then find out who oversees the election process there. Arrange, if possible, interviews with such people and ask students to make reports on the results.

Student Reading 3:

Troubles over Money

You've decided to become a candidate for the House of Representatives or the Senate. Or perhaps you are an incumbent and want to run for reelection. You know that running is going to cost you money. But for what? And how much? Here are some of the items:

  • A campaign manager and other campaign employees
  • Printing and mailings
  • TV commercials
  • A telephone bank with hired operators to make many calls
  • Travel
  • A campaign office with necessary furniture, computers, phones, etc.

You talk to consultants and political friends to find out what these and other costs are likely to be. You check the nonpartisan website of the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org) and find out that in 2004:

  • the average House incumbent raised $1,122,505.
  • the average House challenger raised $192,964.
  • the average Senate incumbent raised $8,614,011.
  • the average Senate challenger raised $962,074.

A quick glance at these numbers tells you several things. 1) An incumbent is very likely to raise far more money than a challenger. 2) Running for the House is expensive. 3) Running for the Senate is even more expensive.

So where are you going to get the money you need?

Possibilities include: the political party whose nomination you hope to get; political action committees (PACs) that represent businesses or labor unions; so-called 527 groups (named because they are organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code) that can't contribute directly to you but can spend money to mobilize voters and advocate on issues you support; lobbyists who work in Washington D.C., perhaps for a big corporation like Boeing, perhaps for a labor union like the American Federation of Teachers, perhaps for an organization like the National Rifle Association; and individual contributions.

For the 2004 elections, the top donor to candidates was Goldman Sachs, a global investment banking and securities firm, which gave $6,511,573. Second was the National Association of Realtors at $3,853,027. Third was Microsoft at $3,549,015.

Why should individuals support you with contributions? Perhaps because your stand on certain issues appeals to them or you seem honest or speak well. But why should PACs, 527 groups, lobbyists and the companies they work for support you? Certainly because they want you to do something for them. They think a hefty contribution will get you to listen carefully as they explain what that something is. Or maybe you're already a member of the House or the Senate, perhaps on an important committee whose work directly affects those from whom you hope to get money. They want your ear, your support, your vote. PACs give almost all their money to incumbents.

Running for public office at the federal or even the state level these days costs a great deal of money. So much money that, not surprisingly, corruption results. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican in the House from 1991-2005, was a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He pleaded guilty recently to, among other things, taking $2.4 million in bribes from three defense contractors to influence the awarding of lucrative defense work. He is now in prison.

A less obvious form of "legal" corruption is what has become known as the K Street strategy. It is named for the Washington, D.C., street lined with offices for major industry trade associations and lobbying firms. In 2004, spending on federal lobbying of Congress and federal agencies was $2.1 billion. In 2005, 34,785 lobbyists worked in the nation's capital. Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House from 2003-2006, made it clear to lobbying firms that there were two rules for influencing legislation good for their clients: 1) Hire Republicans only and 2) Contribute handsomely to Republican political campaigns.

The 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo ruled that direct limits on campaign contributions and campaign spending are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. The court reaffirmed that ruling recently in Randall v. Sorrell.

As a candidate for the House or Senateówhether you are an incumbent or a challengeróyou know you will have to raise money. People and groups that give money, especially large sums of money, almost always want something in return. So what will you be prepared to give? And what will be the cost to you?

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why is running for federal office so expensive?

3. What are potential sources of money for a candidate?

4. Why are donors more likely to give to an incumbent than to a challenger?

5. What effect is this likely to have on the political process? On you, as a candidate?

6. Why does the Supreme Court regard direct limits on campaign contributions and campaign spending as a violation of the First Amendment?

For further inquiry

1. Research the House member in your district and the two senators in your state. An excellent source of information is the Center for Responsive Politics (www.crp.org). It does not support candidates. It does not take positions on major public issues like the Iraq war or immigration. It provides objective reports on money in politics.

At this site you can find the most up-to-date information on the political financing of your representative or senators. It includes:

  • Major donorsóindividuals, companies, labor unions, other groups and organizations
  • Receipts up to the date of their last required report
  • Total money spent
  • Cash on hand
  • Quality of their financial disclosure (as judged by the Center)

For comparative purposes it might be worthwhile also to check out the same kind of information for another representative or two and the senators from nearby states.

Take notes on your findings. Come to class with those notes and any questions they raise for you. Have a class discussion about the facts of political financing and their implications for the democratic process.

2. Campaign finance reform efforts that aim to level the playing field among candidates and reduce or eliminate the corrupting influence of money in U.S. elections have had limited success. Common Cause (www.commoncause.org) is promoting a program of public financing of political campaigns. Such financing has had some recent success, for example in Connecticut state elections. How would public financing work? What are the pros and cons?

For additional information about campaign finance reform, see also the websites of Public Citizen (www.citizen.org) ; Public Campaign (www.publiccampaign.org); Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org); U.S. Action (www.usaction.org) and its affiliates, such as Citizens Action in New York (www.citizenactionny.org); and Brookings Institute (www.brookings.edu).

3. What was the Supreme Court's reasoning in its 1976 decision on Buckley v. Valeo? Another campaign finance reform effort was Vermont's more recent enactment of limits on campaign contributions and spending. The Supreme Court decision in Randall v. Sorrell struck down the Vermont law. Why? What room did the decision leave for a possible future case on campaign finance limitations?

For citizenship

Following study of their congressional district lines, voting methods, and campaign financing, what conclusions do students draw about each? Is there a consensus that reforms are necessary in one or more areas? If so, what reforms and what might students do about them? Among the possibilities:

Students might interview election officials in their districts. Students should carefully prepare for such interviews by developing concise, clear, and carefully worded questions that get at issues like those in the first two readings.

Students might send e-mails or letters about these issues to their representative and senatorsóor visit their officers. Students can also monitor what, if anything, their representatives do about the issue.

Students might prepare and distribute class newspapers or magazines dealing with key issues or organize assemblies that include public officials and student participation.

Students can get involved in campaigns for improved voting methods by such organizations as Common Cause, Public Citizen and The Center for Responsive Politics.


This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.