Common section

Chapter 14

Where Do You Draw the Line?

In This Chapter

bulletDividing the world in different ways

bulletFeeling tension over turf

bulletAsking the question: Does size and shape (of countries, that is) matter?

bulletRigging an election and getting away with it

Y ou can divide up space and set up different types of boundaries in many ways. In addition to living in the United States, I live in the State of New York, the City of New York, and the Borough of Manhattan (also known as New York County), all of which have separate boundaries. I also live within a particular school district, police precinct, City Council District, U.S. Congressional District, New York State Senate District, and New York State Assembly District. They, too, have boundaries, and none are the same. But that’s just me. What about you? How many political lines on the map enclose your residence? And the government isn’t the only one that has this “thing” about dividing space. The phone company has divided the country in area codes. The postal service has done the same, only their lines have different placements and define different areas — zip codes. Maybe you belong to a church that divides space into dioceses, presbyteries, or something else. Maybe you work for a company that divides space into sales territories. The bottom line is that Earth is divided by lines of all kinds.

As all of these instances testify, Homo sapiens have proven to be a rather territorial species (as illustrated by the wall in Figure 14-1). Indeed, one of the most profound things we humans do to our earthly home is divide it up among ourselves, thereby creating regions of sovereignty, control, or administration. We do this by drawing lines on a map, which begs a rather basic question: Where do you draw the line? This is a central issue of political geography, which is concerned with division and control of Earth’s surface and is the subject of this chapter. In writing this chapter, I, too, had to draw the line — that is, make decisions regarding what to include and what not to. In the end, I decided to focus on two topics, international borders and voting district boundaries, which I believe are particularly timely.

Drawing and Re-Drawing the Boundaries of the World

Many years ago I attended a lecture concerning “lost nations.” I had no idea what it was going to be about. I figured maybe the entire populations of several countries had gotten off at the wrong exit, refused to ask for directions, and were, you know, lost. Or maybe they were all stuck on a subway someplace, like that old folk song about the man who never returned. I was wrong. The presenter had prepared a geographical analysis of all the countries of the world that had ceased to exist since 1850. Dozens and dozens of those countries had been “lost” to the family of nations. Maps of the world’s countries are quite common. But neither the nations nor the boundaries between them are etched in stone. Since that lecture, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and maybe one or two other countries have joined the “lost” list. But the world is hardly running out of nations. Indeed, new countries seem to be springing up faster than existing ones are disappearing. The Soviet Union fractured into 15 nations and Yugoslavia into 5. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Africa, Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, a host of new candidates are vying for countryhood. People in Chechnya want to be free of Russia. The Tamils want to be separate from Sri Lanka. Basques in Spain and France want a country of their own. And on it goes. If past is prologue, then I have no doubt that a comparison of today’s world map with future ones will reveal a mix of new nations and lost ones.

Tensions over turf, like debt and taxes, never seem to go away. For starters, some ethnic group is always clamoring for independence or wanting to draw or re-draw boundaries in a certain part of the world. Without taking sides in such matters, let me simply propose a singular reason for much of this contentiousness. Namely, the people who drew most of today’s international boundaries came from somewhere else, and they often gave little or no thought to the possible long-term consequences to the native population.

Typecasting Boundary Lines

Insight into the nature and consequences of boundary making is provided by Figure 14-2. Assume it is a map from more than a hundred years ago that shows the boundaries of five ethnic groups labeled A–F, as well as a river and a line of longitude. Also assume that you are an official who, in the language of the previous paragraph, comes from somewhere else, and must decide where to place an international boundary within the area shown in Figure 14-2. Three options are available, and they correspond to the features just mentioned. They are:

bulletThe Ethnic Option: The homelands of five ethnic groups, indicated by the letters A–F in Figure 14-2, occupy the area in question. One option is to divide the area on the basis of the ethnic boundaries highlighted on the map.

bulletThe Landform Option: A fairly large river flows through the area. A line running down its middle could be used as the border.

bulletThe Graticule Option: If you read Chapter 3, then you may recall that graticule refers to Earth’s grid of latitude and longitude. A line of longitude runs through the region. This line potentially could serve as the international boundary.

I didn’t simply dream up these possibilities. Instead, the three options represent the three kinds of borders that political geographers most commonly identify. Each type is discussed in greater detail in the following sections.

Ethnic boundaries


This one’s a no-brainer. Ethnic boundaries separate the homelands of neighboring ethnic groups. They are also probably the oldest kind of boundary there is. Viewed against the broad sweep of human history, the concept of a country with recognized borders and a centralized government is a fairly recent invention. Much older is the idea of an ethnic group possessing a distinct language, customs, and homeland.

For example, when the Europeans arrived in North America, they didn’t find a country called the United States divided by lines into entities named New Jersey, Kansas, Arizona, and so forth. Those came much later. What they did encounter, however, was a continent inhabited by dozens upon dozens of Native American ethnic groups, each of which had its own distinct homeland rather like the areas labeled A through F in Figure 14-2. Similarly, when Africa was about to be divided into colonies, it did not consist of the countries we see today, but instead was composed of the homelands of hundreds of ethnic groups.

Typically, the boundaries of ethnic homelands in North America, Africa, and elsewhere were not fixed lines established by formal treaty. More often they were ill-defined zones that lay on the periphery of lands occupied by an ethnic group. Thus, they were fluid — prone to change. That is, if a particular ethnic group gained or lost territory as a result of some conflict, the ethnic boundary changed accordingly. For these two reasons — ill definition and impermanence — ethnic boundaries were rarely used as a basis for modern boundary making. Instead, the treaty makers who were responsible for most of today’s boundaries opted for the types discussed in the next two sections.

Natural (physical) boundaries


Natural boundaries are based on some aspect of physiography — physical landforms. While diverse aspects of landscape may be called upon, three are particularly common. The United States provides abundant examples of each type (see Figure 14-3):

bulletShorelines: The Atlantic Coast boundary of Florida and the maritime borders of Alaska are good examples. The shorelines of the Great Lakes States are relevant to some extent, though the border with Canada runs through the lakes rather than following the shoreline.

bulletRivers: The New Jersey-Pennsylvania border (Delaware River); the Illinois-Iowa border (Mississippi River); and the Oregon-Washington Border (Columbia River). Quite typically, the border is not the left bank or the right bank, but instead an imaginary line that runs down the middle of the waterway.

bulletRidgelines: The crest of a ridgeline in the Bitterroot Mountains marks the border between Idaho and Montana. Similar crests in the Appalachian Mountains mark the boundaries between Virginia and West Virginia, and between North Carolina and Tennessee.

The principal advantage of natural borders is that they are based on things that can be readily seen, agreed upon, and mapped. In contrast to an occasionally questionable ethnic boundary, there should be no question as regards to the location of a river, coast, or ridge. They are not necessarily permanent, however. As you can see in Chapters 6 and 7, powerful tectonic and gradational forces build up and wear down Earth’s surface over time. Rivers in particular may change course as a result of a major flood or cataclysmic event. But the advantages of natural boundaries are powerful. As a result, many boundaries are based on this feature.

Geometric boundaries


Geometric boundaries are straight lines. In a majority of instances they are lines of latitude and longitude. Several examples are evident on a map of the United States, including the latitude line that separates Utah, Colorado, and Kansas from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma (see Figure 14-3). Some straight lines are not part of Earth’s grid, however. Perhaps the most noticeable U.S. example is the northwest-southeast line that constitutes most of the border between California and Nevada (see Figure 14-3).

Use of straight lines is not limited to the United States. Nearly all of the borders between the states of Australia are lines of latitude and longitude. In West Africa, similarly, the country of Mali has both a latitudinal and longitudinal border with Mauritania, and a non-grid straight-line boundary with Algeria.

The most attractive feature of geometric boundaries, as far as border-markers are concerned, is that they are based on abstract geometric space instead of the physical Earth or ethnic homelands. Therefore, they have a degree of permanency that the other types do not. Let it rain for 40 days and 40 nights, and the results may alter natural boundaries, but geometric boundaries will not be affected. Similarly, let every ethnic group on Earth riot, have a bad hair day, go on the warpath, or whatever, and the results may alter previous ethnic boundaries; but again, geometric boundaries will be unaffected because they are abstract concepts. People can’t pick up and move a line of latitude or longitude. They could conceivably “fake the location” of such a line for personal benefit, but proper surveying can detect and fix such shenanigans.

Living with the Consequences

After the boundary lines have been drawn, the citizens of those areas and the ones responsible for creating the lines have to live with the consequences. The world’s international borders consist of thousands of linear segments that enclose some 200 countries. In some cases the results have proven functional and harmonious. Other cases, however, are characterized by very different adjectives. Following are an overview and examples of some of the more challenging consequences of global boundary making.

Ethnic intrigues

As I explain earlier in this chapter, much of the world is divided on the basis of natural and geometric boundaries as opposed to ethnic ones. This is especially true of the many countries that once were colonial possessions. Over large parts of Earth, therefore, disparities exist between ethnic boundaries and country boundaries. Visual comparison of these border types in Africa, for instance, reveals two very separate sets of lines that seldom coincide. Though not necessarily bad, disagreement between these sets of lines has occasionally fostered significant ethnic and political tension in Africa and elsewhere.


This unrest broadly falls into three categories. Before discussing them, however, I need to make a particular distinction between state and nation. For the purposes of this discussion, state is synonymous with country. It refers, therefore, to territory that is delineated by a border and has sovereign, independent status. Nation, in contrast, is synonymous with an ethnic group that has its own traditional homeland, history, and culture that causes its members to view themselves as distinct from other people. Sometimes, for example, particular Native American peoples are referred to as the Seminole Nation, the Hopi Nation, the Sioux Nation, and so forth. That is the meaning of “nation” used here.

Multi-nation states

A multi-nation state is a country that contains the homelands of more than one nation. Nigeria, whose population consists of the homelands of some 200 national (ethnic) groups, is a prime example. The main problem in this situation is trying to create a common identity and sense of unity among peoples who speak different languages, practice different religions, and, perhaps worse, have a history of mutual animosity, if not outright hostility. Consider the following scenarios, any one of which might result in a level of ethnic tension that results in unrest:

bulletAppointed government officials, top military leaders, or chiefs of police are members of an ethnic group that is distrusted by members of other ethnic groups.

bulletPolitical parties form along ethnic lines, heightening prospects that election results may lead to friction between nations.

bulletGovernment declares official languages or religious holidays that promote the culture of one or more nations but not others.

bulletThe capital is located in (or relocated to) the homeland of a particular nation that is distrusted by others.

bulletEconomic development projects are disproportionately located in the homeland of a particular nation, leading other groups to feel they are being deprived of their fair share of economic opportunity.

Multi-state nations

A multi-state nation consists of an ethnic group whose people and traditional homeland lies within two or more countries. This situation may lead to irredentism, a foreign policy in which one country seeks to acquire foreign territory for the purpose of unifying a nation. The term dates from the 1870s when Garibaldi and his followers sought to incorporate “unredeemed” (irredenta) Italian-speaking territories into the Italy that you see on today’s map. The potential problem, of course, is that a country that contains the coveted land is not likely to give it up without a fight.

The Somalis provide a case study. This ethnic group’s traditional homeland includes much of the “horn” of East Africa (see Figure 14-4). In the latter part of the 19th century, Ethiopia, Italy, and Britain signed a treaty that divided this region between them. Following de-colonization, the present Somali Republic was established out of the territory controlled by Italy and Britain. But a large portion of the traditional Somali homeland, known as the Ogaden, remains under Ethiopian control.

Somali politicians have argued that dividing up their traditional homeland among foreigners without Somali consent was not fair in the first place; thus the Somali Republic rightfully ought to annex Ogaden by any means necessary. Naturally, this argument echoes rather strongly among Somalis but alarms Ethiopia, which views the Ogaden to be part of its territory by virtue of a legitimate treaty. The result has been on-again, off-again debate and occasional armed conflict between the two countries over control of the Ogaden.

State-less nations


A state-less nation is an ethnic group whose traditional homeland is currently under the control of another country. Virtually hundreds of ethnic groups and their homelands are in this category. These peoples usually adopt one of three stances:

bulletDo nothing: A majority of stateless nations are comparatively docile about this particular circumstance. While some members may desire statehood, the overall level of support for autonomy has not — for whatever reason — reached a critical level.

bulletSeek greater autonomy: Some ethnic groups seek a greater degree of autonomy for their homelands as opposed to complete independence. The Welsh and Scottish peoples are examples. Although some hard-core nationalists long for complete separation from the United Kingdom, the majority favor continued union complemented by a high degree of self-rule.

bulletClamor for independence: Members of some ethnic groups seek complete independence of their homelands from the country to which they are presently bound. People in predominantly French-speaking Quebec, for example, have sought sovereignty for their province and taken the issue to the ballot box, where it failed to pass. In other cases, however, people are so aggrieved by the perceived injustice of their circumstance that they feel any means of achieving their goal — including extremely violent acts — are justified. Examples of such groups include the Basques, Tamils, and Kurds.

The Kurds

The Kurds, who number some 20 million, are an example of both a multi-state nation and a stateless-nation. In the early years of the 20th century, their traditional homeland, Kurdistan, lay mainly within the Ottoman Empire, which ceased to exist after World War I. Kurdish nationalists hoped that an independent Kurdistan would be born of post-war boundaries drawn by the victorious parties. Sadly for them, that did not come to pass. Instead, the modern map of the region gradually emerged, in which Kurdistan is now spread over six countries (hence, a multi-state nation), principally Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Kurds are not a majority in any of these countries, but they have not given up hope of independence for their homeland. Until that happens, however, they remain a state-less nation.

Positional disputes


Positional disputes concern disagreements over location of a border. One of three factors typically underlies the resulting tensions.

Poor definition

In some cases, disagreement arises between neighboring countries concerning borders (often inherited from colonial times) that were poorly defined. Here are two examples:

bulletKashmir: At the end of the colonial era, a boundary commission sought to divide this Himalayan region between Pakistan and India, taking into account ethnic divisions. Nationalists on both sides disagreed over the recommended partition of the region, which is also the source of rivers that supply irrigation water to the countries’ agricultural lowlands. Control of Kashmir continues to be a major bone of contention in Indian-Pakistani relations.

bulletThe Southern Andes: During Spanish colonial administration, ridges and watersheds were used to define what would become the long border between Argentina and Chile. The area was poorly mapped, however, resulting in conflicting interpretations of boundary locations. Segment by segment, disputes over different parts of the boundary were resolved by direct negotiations, third-party mediation, the International Court of Justice, or — in one particular case — the intervention of the Pope


In some cases, determining where a border is located is impossible. Such situations are potential powder kegs. Here are two examples:

bulletAmazonia: The periphery of the Amazon basin contains a couple of boundaries that pass through trackless expanses of jungle and rainforest. Thus, while the line is plainly visible on the map, no clue to its whereabouts can be found on the ground. The potential for trouble has been highlighted by discovery of oil and natural gas in the region.

bulletArabian Peninsula: Because of the vast emptiness of the Arabian Desert, the boundaries between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates have been approximated but not delineated. Thus, on most detailed maps of Arabia, the borders are shown as dashed lines accompanied by “boundary undefined” or words to that effect. So far the countries have felt no major ill effects, but situations like these have a way of turning nasty.

“Acts of God”

An “act of God” is a cataclysmic event that results in disagreement over the location of a border. The most common (but hardly everyday) occurrence involves a boundary river that changes course following a major flood. The Mississippi River, for example, has changed course several times since it was established as the boundary between Arkansas and Mississippi. As a result, some land that used to be on the Arkansas side of the river is now on the Mississippi side, and vice versa. Similarly, a small portion of Texas ended up on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande years ago following a freak flood.

If a parcel of land “changes sides,” then is it in the same jurisdiction it was before, or in a different one? Basically, it all depends on how the treaty was written. In any event, however, you can no doubt appreciate the potential here for political intrigue.

Functional disputes


Functional disputes concern policy disagreements regarding immigration, trade, customs fees, or some other matter(s) that apply to a particular boundary. Here are two contemporary examples.

United States-Mexico

Trade and daily exchanges across the U.S.-Mexican border are at an all-time high and have served to bring the two countries closer together than ever before. At the same time, however, illegal immigration and drug trafficking have caused many Americans to advocate a “hardening” of this border to make crossing more difficult. Thus, contrasting forces are respectively advocating a more open boundary and a less open boundary. On the American side, border patrols have been increased and physical barriers erected along some stretches. Critics view these physical barriers as virtual Berlin Walls, while proponents view them as necessary steps to maintain national security. Mexicans tend to view America’s “hardening” policies as counterproductive to good relations and often contrast it to the U.S.-Canadian border, which is very open and largely non-policed.


Significant exchanges occur across borders that separate Israel from land administered by the Palestinian Authority. Overwhelmingly, this involves Palestinians who commute to work in Israel or who must travel through Israel to reach other lands under Palestinian control. From the Palestinian perspective, an open border is desirable. However, Israeli security concerns have caused Israel to take a different view of these same boundaries and, during times of strife, close them entirely as a means of expressing displeasure or retribution.

Resource disputes


Occasionally an international boundary cuts across a natural resource whose use becomes a bone of contention between the neighboring countries. Here are two examples.

The Rumaila Oil Field

This oil field straddles the border between Kuwait and Iraq, as shown in Figure 14-5a. Though it lies principally within Iraq, the nature of oil means that wells drilled in Kuwait can potentially suck up this resource as fast or faster than wells across the border. Sensitivities regarding “fair share” have run high. Indeed, increased production by Kuwait was one of the rationales offered by Iraq for invading its neighbor in 1990.

The Georges Bank

For many years, this historically rich fishery, shown in Figure 14-5b, straddled a disputed marine boundary between the United States and Canada. Like the preceding example, each country had access to it and was sensitive to the notion of “fair share.” The fish, who could care less about the boundary’s location, habitually swam back and forth across the disputed area. That meant that over-fishing on one side of the border, while relatively enriching that country’s fishermen, had the potential to deplete the entire fishery and, at the same time, deprive the neighbor of “fair share.” Fish bones of contention? You bet, and hold the tartar sauce.

Sometimes resource disputes are resolved amicably by direct discussion between the parties involved, or with the assistance of an organization with which both are affiliated — like the UN or NATO. Sometimes the case literally goes to court — the International Court of Justice, that is. The dispute between the U.S. and Canada over the Georges Bank was settled in that manner. On the other hand, sometimes the problem simply festers or is resolved by armed conflict. Thus, resource disputes have diverse outcomes — some peaceful, some not.

Land-locked states


A land-locked state is a country that is completely surrounded by land that belongs to one or more neighboring countries. Thus, it has no port of its own and therefore no immediate access to international waterways. Three dozen land-locked states are located throughout the world, including about a dozen each in Africa and Asia, two in South America, and the rest in Europe (see Figure 14-6). At least three potential problems emerge from this status.

Inhibited access to foreign markets

Lack of an ocean boundary carries with it lack of unfettered access to foreign markets. You may be thinking, “Who needs a sea port if you have an airport? Why not import and export everything by airplane?” Aside from the fact that you can’t just go flying over another country’s territory without permission, transporting bulk trade items by ship is far and away the cheapest mode of importing and exporting goods. For all intents and purposes, therefore, access to foreign markets requires access to the high seas.

In recognition of the peculiar position of land-locked states, international law has long granted them the right of innocent passage in matters of foreign trade. That is, land-locked countries have the right to transport imports and exports across the territory of neighboring countries provided such action does not pose a threat to the security of the host country or violate its laws. A land-locked state may even be allowed to lease dock facilities in a neighboring country, thereby giving it the port it would otherwise lack.

Treading softly in foreign relations

Land-locked states find it beneficial to tread very softly in foreign affairs, especially in matters that pertain to neighboring countries that grant them the right of innocent passage. Tick off thy neighbors, and they may cut you off from the sea, bringing your ability to import and export to a halt. Obviously, the effect of this type of action on your economy may be devastating. So make nice, even if you despise them. And you can scream all you want to about your rights. It turns out that the vaunted right of innocent passage is little more than some touchy-feely gentleman’s agreement. Or as they may say in New York, the right of innocent passage plus $1.50 gets you a ride on the subway.

Applied Geography: Flying over Pakistan

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the United States military lent its considerable support to the overthrow of the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan. As part of that effort, numerous air strikes and cruise missiles were launched from American warships operating in the Arabian Sea. Also, a sizeable contingent of marines and other personnel were flown into Afghanistan from the same flotilla. But because Afghanistan is land-locked, all of those sea-launched flights had to fly over some other country to get to their destinations, and that country was Pakistan.

Countries have sovereignty over the “air space” (that is, the physical atmosphere) that is directly above their territory. Flying through that air space without permission is tantamount to invading or violating the sovereignty of the country in question. It is a very serious matter. Accordingly, in the days and weeks prior to the beginning of hostilities in Afghanistan, U.S. government and military officials carefully courted their Pakistani counterparts to join the coalition against Afghanistan. This assistance was to prove important for several reasons, one of which was to permit important military missions that involved Pakistani airspace.

Increasing the cost of trade

Even if all is well with respect to the previous two points, being land-locked means that your imports and exports absorb extra transportation costs versus countries with a coast. That increases the cost of its exports (and therefore makes them less competitive in global markets) and raises the cost of imports, too. Neither is beneficial to an economy.

Questions of size and shape

I can hear the “tsk-tsking” already, but I’m going to say it anyway. Does size matter? How about shape? That is, are some sizes and shapes better than others as far as the welfare of a country is concerned? Clearly, countries come in all sizes and shapes.


Russia, the biggest country on Earth, contains nearly 6.6 million square miles. On the other end of the spectrum lies Monaco, which barely covers 1 square mile. Lots of other sizes can be found in between. Logically, we all probably assume that bigger is better. More territory usually means greater prospects for mineral wealth, more agricultural land, and so forth. But it may also mean remote regions, lots of boundary to defend, restless ethnic groups, large uninhabited areas, and umpteen challenges to cohesiveness. A small, compact country may face none of these challenges.

And that leads to a consideration of shape. Political geographers tend to agree that shape clearly can make some kind of difference in some cases. The following sections discuss the four types of country shapes, which are shown in Figure 14-7.

Compact states

A compact state, such as Uruguay, is roughly circular and is generally thought to be the ideal shape. Assuming absence of mountain ranges or other physical barriers, parts of the country may be readily interconnected with comparatively little investment in roads, railways, electronic cables, and so forth. Also, compactness minimizes the amount of international border that may need to be defended, and may also minimize the extent of internal ethnic boundaries as well. All in all, compactness tends to promote internal cohesion.

Fragmented states

A fragmented state consists of scattered, disconnected pieces of territory, typically because all or part of the country is a chain of islands. Indonesia is an example. Fragmentation makes it more difficult for government to impose central control and to promote cohesion and interaction between different parts of the country. Also, different fragments may be homelands of different ethnic groups that have little in common.

Elongated states

An elongated state, such as Chile, is long and thin. In most cases this shape is detrimental to national cohesion. Some places may be remote from the capital, a lot of border needs to be defended, and elongation often results in a more diverse populace than a compact shape. On the other hand, elongation may result in climatic variety that is a plus to the country’s agriculture and economy.

Prorupted states

A prorupted state, such as Namibia, is generally compact but has a noticeable protrusion. In the case of Namibia, a land protrusion gave Germany (once the colonial ruler in Namibia) access to the Zambezi River. In the cases of other countries, such as Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), proruption is the result of a peninsula. This shape is generally thought to be disadvantageous because it isolates a portion of the country.

Drawing Electoral District Boundaries

A very different, yet very important, component of political geography concerns the drawing of voter district boundaries. The governments of the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and other democracies include legislative bodies elected on the principal of “one person, one vote” — equal representation for all citizens. This in turn necessitates creation of electoral districts that contain roughly the same number of people. Regarding the United States, drawing the boundaries of Congressional Districts immediately comes to mind, and so, too, the outlines of other political geographic entities — such as city council districts, state senate districts, and state house districts. Making “one person, one vote” a geo-political reality involves four steps:


1. Count: Conduct a nationwide census that is as accurate as possible. The United States does one every ten years. Indeed, the Constitution requires it — not simply to count Americans, but for the specific purpose of acquiring data that permits creation of equal Congressional Districts.

2. Map: The next step is to map the collected information with as much geographic accuracy as the data permits. That means, for example, that when it comes to a large city, boundary-makers need population statistics on a block-by-block basis.

3. Calculate: The next step is to calculate the number of people who should be in each district. This is a fairly simple matter. Say, for example, that you are considering a given state’s house of representatives that has 100 seats. In that case, you take the state’s population total, as revealed by the census, and divide by 100. The numerical result is the number of people who should reside in each district.

4. Draw: The final step is to draw the map. In the case of the above, that means dividing the state in question into 100 polygons, each of which (as closely as possible) contains the same number of people, as calculated in the previous step.

Gerrymandering: Rigging the outcome


“Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.” Maybe you’ve heard this cute little phrase, which alludes to the possibility of using or manipulating data to serve a particular interest. As regards political geography, it may manifest itself in gerrymandering, the drawing of voter district boundaries to benefit a particular group or political party.

Gerrymander pays mocking tribute to Elbridge Gerry, who, as governor of Massachusetts in 1812, sought to redraw the political district map of his state in such a way that assured the continued dominance of his political party in the statehouse. One particular political district was drawn in a narrow, sinuous shape that, according to one observer, “looked like a salamander.” That prompted a wag to respond that it was no salamander, but instead a “gerrymander.” The moniker stuck.

Then and now, gerrymandering typically occurs because a political party or voting bloc wants to maximize its representation in a legislative body and minimize that of another group. Figure 14-8 shows the two most common types of gerrymanders. By way of background, each diagram is characterized by the following:

bulletThe area in question consists of a city (inner circle) and its surrounding countryside.

bulletAn accurate census has placed the region’s total population at 50,000.

bulletTwo categories of voters live in the district, the As and the Bs. You may think of them as members of different political parties or different racial or ethnic groups or whatever. The key thing is that they are on opposite sides of the political fence.

bulletEvery member of Group A lives in the city. Every member of Group B lives outside it. (This is a gross simplification of typical voting bloc geography, and is made strictly to facilitate understanding of gerrymandering techniques.)

bulletRepresentatives of Group B are currently in power. They will resort to any legal means to stay there, including drawing voting district boundaries designed to promote election of their candidates.

bulletThe area in question is to be divided into 5 political districts, each of which contains 10,000 people.

“Diluting” a voting bloc

In Figure 14-8a, Group A consists of 20,000 people and Group B 30,000. Because Group A accounts for two-fifths (40 percent) of the voters, you may expect them to capture two-fifths of the seats being contested. That is, they may win two of the five seats. But they can quite possibly get nothing. In Figure 14-8a, members of Group A have been spread out over the five districts such that they are in the minority in every instance. In a manner of speaking, their voting power has been “diluted.” Assuming voters vote solely along party lines, the results will be 5-0 in favor of Group B.

“Packing” a voting bloc

In Figure 14-8b, Group A consists of 30,000 people and Group B 20,000. Because Group A now accounts for three-fifths (60 percent) of the voters, you may expect a totally different electoral outcome. But there is a way to draw the district boundaries that ensures political dominance for Group B. And because these are the people who are drawing the lines, you can bet they will do it. In the diagram, two inner-city districts consist entirely of members of Group A. But by “packing” so many members of Group A into these two districts, the result is that they are in the minority in the other three. Assuming once more that voters vote solely along party lines, the results will be 3-2 in favor of Group B. Stated differently, the bloc that consists of two-fifths of the voters will control three-fifths of the seats.

Meeting the letter and spirit of the law

You may be thinking, “That’s not fair!” And you may be right. But more important is the question, “Is that legal?”

Some people say “Yes.” Clearly, every political district in Figure 14-9 complies with the letter of the law. That is, the number of voters is the same in each district, so the constitutional concept of equal representation has been met.

Other people, however, believe that elected officialdom should be as diverse as the represented population. In their view, gerrymanders violate the spirit of the law, lead to a distrust of government, and may ultimately undermine the very fabric of American democracy.

A practical solution, in their view, is to create voting districts drawn to virtually guarantee the election of members of particular ethnic groups (Figure 14-9). Opponents view this solution as blatantly unconstitutional and say districts drawn to encourage election of particular peoples are as offensive as lines drawn to exclude them.

The courts, for their parts, have flip-flopped on the issue. Quite literally, the jury is still out. In the meantime, passions run high among folks who feel strongly about this issue, which is as much about geography as it is politics and law. After all, the question comes down to “Where do you draw the line?”

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