Gerrymandering: The Real Story Behind How Mark Sanford Won SC-1

If you are like me, you were shocked, disgusted, and horrified by the outcome of the special election in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District last week. To be honest, when I first heard that Mark Sanford had beaten Elizabeth Colbert Busch, I wanted to throw up a little bit in my mouth. I found it appalling (and still do) that the voters in SC-1 would rather have a guy who stole from them, lied to them, and left the state to sleep with his mistress in Argentina as their representative, than a Democrat — and a centrist Democrat at that. However, almost immediately after asserting that SC-1 voters weren’t the brightest crayons in the box and/or were such sheep that they would rather pick Mark Sanford over a centrist Democrat, simply because he had an (R) behind his name, it occurred to me that the real story was in the gerrymandered map — party loyalty and stupidity were secondary.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, gerrymandering is defined as:

“Drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals.”

Britannica goes on to say:

“The term is derived from the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, whose administration enacted a law in 1812 defining new state senatorial districts. The law consolidated the Federalist Party vote in a few districts and thus gave disproportionate representation to Democratic-Republicans. The outline of one of these districts was thought to resemble a salamander. A satirical cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale appeared in the Boston Gazette; it graphically transformed the districts into a fabulous animal, “The Gerry-mander,” fixing the term in the popular imagination.”

More importantly, according to Fair Vote (a non-for-profit that looks to ensure fair voting for all citizens) the problem with gerrymandering is:

“[It] encourages manipulation of our elections by allowing incumbent politicians to help partisan allies, hurt political enemies and choose their voters before the voters choose them. The current process is used as a means to further political goals by drawing boundaries to protect incumbents and reduce competition, rather than to ensure equal voting power and fair representation.”

Besides, it does not take more than a quick glimpse at the district map for SC-1 to see what was really going on. By looking at the map, one can easily see that the part of Charleston that was predominantly Democratic was cut from SC-1 and moved into SC-6, thereby making SC-1 a chiefly Republican district. Subsequently, I had the chance to speak to Mr. Bren Langdon, a resident of Charleston County, who informed me that in the past Charleston County was in fact part of SC-1. Additionally, I spoke to Bonnie Grossman who stated:

“If the Republicans could have found a worse candidate than Sanford, you know, someone who lived on cardboard under a bridge, they could still have won the 1st district in SC. Perfect example: on the peninsula of Charleston, there is a ultra-high income group South of Broad Street [that] votes heavily Republican. The East side is predominantly poor and black. The 10-20 blocks in the middle are business areas and residential blocks that are enjoying the effects of gentrification. Those who move in and participate in the renewal of an area tend to be liberals — professors, gays, young people who can buy low and wait for the area to turn around. All of [that] middle area was safely tucked into the 6th district in a Republican gerrymandering exercise. They basically gave it to Jim Clyburn… so, he’s good for life, and the 1st District is now safely Republican.”

After doing a bit of research, I was able to verify that SC-1 was a Democratic stronghold, up until the 20th century. However, following the 1990 census, in 1992, most of Charleston’s African-American majority areas were shifted into SC-6. Thus, it became even more apparent that Mark Sanford’s victory was more likely due to the way SC-1 was drawn, than it was due to his political prowess or the acumen (or lack thereof) of the voters. Simply put, it’s pretty difficult to win SC-1 as a Democrat, unless you can convince Republicans against voting down party lines. Although, before the lines were re-drawn the demographics of the area were shifting; the redistricting formally codified a Republican advantage in SC-1. For what it’s worth, the last time a Democrat represented SC-1 was from 1971-1981, when Mendal Jackson Davis held the seat.

Likewise, gerrymandering is not just occurring in South Carolina, it is occurring virtually everywhere and in a more arbitrary and inexcusable way than it ever has in the past. Take Districts 15 and 18 in Illinois for example. According to a resident I spoke to, Joi Ellis, who currently resides in IL-18, Districts 15 and 18 were at one point, “relatively uniform, with a mix of rural and urban populations. Now, 15 and 18 have been gerrymandered to put all the urban folks in 18 and the rural areas in 15.” Now, I would not be doing my due diligence if I didn’t point out that redistricting in Illinois has in fact tended to favor Democrats, however, according to the Daily Kos, the redistricting of IL-15 has improved the Republican Party’s advantage in the District to 54-45.

Or, have a look at the districts in North Carolina. As reported by Evelyn Paul, a resident of NC-10, “[her] county formerly had larger districts, specifically NC-12 and NC-10, each [which represented] two counties (Craven & Pamlico and Craven & Lenoir) respectively.” However, following the census, the Republican controlled state legislature, ”carved out a new district, NC-10, and now each district represents smaller portions of these three counties.” Ms. Paul went on to say that following the redistricting, she, “went from [living in] District 12 to the new District 10,” and that “[her] representative lives three counties and sixty miles away from [her].” In addition, Ms. Sharon Mills from Henderson (NC-11) told me that the Democratic leaning Asheville, NC was cut out of NC-11 and subsequently a Republican was elected to the seat, replacing the incumbent Democrat, Heath Shuler. Moreover, the gerrymandering in North Carolina is so atrocious that it is currently the subject of a lawsuit in which, “Democratic voters and civil rights and voting advocacy groups [are contending] that dozens of districts across the state are racial gerrymanders designed to reduce the political influence of black voters and should be struck down.”

Or, take Georgia’s Districts 10 and 12. Jesse Huber, a resident of Georgia’s District 12, from Augusta, informed me that before the redistricting he used to live in GA-10. Mr, Huber went on to say that the Republican controlled legislature cut Savannah off of GA-12 and moved Augusta from GA-10 to GA-12 instead. He stated that, “[they] made the District more favorable to Republicans [because] their hope was to replace the Democratic incumbent, John Barrow, with a Republican.” Fortunately for the Democrats, “the plan backfired and John Barrow won his re-election anyway,” however if I was to venture a guess, I’d say this is more of an anomaly than the norm.

And these are just a few select examples.

To make matters worse, gerrymandering isn’t just a SC-1 problem or just a Republican strategy. It occurs throughout all 50 states and across party lines. However, after winning sweeping control of many state legislatures in the 2010 election, Republicans were in a unique position to re-draw the lines in their favor. Moreover, while shifting demographics and increasing or decreasing populations in certain areas may arguably be decent reasons to redistrict, the fact of the matter is that redistricting is almost always done by the party in control of the state legislature and is almost never done fairly. In almost every instance of redistricting, one party gains an unfair advantage over the other. Gerrymandering is not a new concept, it has been around since the 1800’s. However, just because it’s been done for 200 years doesn’t mean we have to, or should keep doing it. Gerrymandering minimizes the roles of the voters and undermines the democratic process; it’s offensive, perverse, and unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

Ilyssa Fuchs

Ilyssa Fuchs is an attorney, freelance writer, and activist from New York City, who holds both a juris doctor and a political science degree. She is the founder of the popular Facebook page Politically Preposterous and a blog of the same name. Follow Ilyssa on Twitter @IlyssaFuchs, and be sure to check out her archives on Forward Progressives as well!


Facebook comments

  • AlfredLehmberg

    Where figures can lie you know liars are figuring! Why is this not entirely against a rule of law?

  • I don’t know why were not hammering this day and night this is one of the most important things we must fight as liberals. Lets set down the other issues now why…. because if we don’t those wont matter for YEARS.

  • J-Way

    Thank you for at least giving lip service to the fact that Gerrymandering is a two-party problem. All the Democrats removed from SC-1 still get to vote, and most of them were put into the neighboring Democrat stronghold of SC-6. To paraphrase Bonnie Grossman, “If the [Democrats] could have found a worse candidate than [Jim Clyburn], you know, someone who lived on cardboard under a bridge, they could still have won the [6th] district in SC.” (Please note I have nothing against Mr. Clyburn; I’m just using a random democrat as an example.)

    To me, the solution is simple. For National elections, mandate that each state form a non-partisan election commission composed of non-elected officials. States can still do whatever they want for state-only elections, but not for National elections. I’m shocking myself by saying this, but this is one area where California has it right.

  • and in deeply red Arizona, we elected a majority Democratic House delegation (5-4) Why? Because the people, through ballot initiative, created an independent redistricting commission, which actually did the job of redistricting as well as can be accomplished under Federal guidelines. This is the only reasonable answer to gerrymandering.

  • Chris Parsons

    I agree. Utah does it all the time ifgthe Repubs think they may lose a seat.

  • However with the vastly improved software and data, creating entire systems of districts across large areas which favor one party, based on demographic and polling data, house by house data is now done.

  • KatieDancer

    You’re being too generous.

  • dissenter

    My solution: Adopt George Washington’s solution. Limit the size of congressional districts to 30,000. With 10,000 Congresscritters living in their districts and voting in their pajamas, even Goldman Sachs couldn’t bribe them all.

    • George Washington lived in an era with small populations. Population today is large. Under Washington’s proposal, there would be a multitude of Representatives in the House. An expensive proposition to boot. The House membership is too large and unwieldy currently – don’t you think?

      • It might make sense if they did all their work by internet and they were paid just a small stipend and maybe 1 or 2 trips to DC a year.

  • From the Constitution; Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3:

    “The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative…”

    So reduce the average size of our existing districts by dividing each district in half. Then do it again and again until it can’t be done without falling below that 30,000 number. [Thus, each current district would be turned into approximately 20.] Then, pass a law — or, more likely, amend the Constitution — so that every time a district exceeds 60,000 citizens, it splits in two again.

    Gerrymandering would be minimized if not even eliminated over time. Campaign finance issues would dissolve. [When you have that few people, then what would you need money for? Kinko’s bills?]

    The House would obviously increase in size. Given 100 million voters in the last election, we would have 10,000 voters in each district electing 10,000 representatives. That would be huge compared to what we are used to, but at least we would have democracy restored to the nation and — who knows? — maybe even have the government work for us again.

    For what its worth, the number originally considered at the Constitutional Convention was 40,000. But George Washington — in one of the few times he asserted himself during the Convention — stated that the 40k number was too high and would surely lead to tyranny. As of 2010, the average size of a Congressional district was around 700,000.