John Oliver Makes Gerrymandering A Little Less Complicated

On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver used his main segment to explain gerrymandering in a straightforward and educational way and to inform audiences of the urgency of redistricting reform.

Oliver opened this part of the show by explaining how the "structural" problems of gerrymandering constitute a threat to democracy because the process essentially dilutes Americans' votes. Oliver asserted that gerrymandering consists of the process of "drawing voting districts in a way that creates unfair advantages for whoever happens to be drawing the line." He also claimed that gerrymandering could have been responsible for Republicans winning such a significant number of Congressional House seats in the last mid-term elections, citing several examples of states in which Republican representatives were exceedingly disproportionate to the number of Republican voters.

Indeed, Oliver indicated that in Pennsylvania in 2014, 44 percent of voters chose Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives; however, due to gerrymandering, 13 of the 18 (or two-thirds) of Pennsylvania's Districts are represented by Republicans—representation which does not reflect the actual will of the voters. A similar scenario occurred in Ohio in 2014, where 40 percent of voters chose Democratic candidates but 12 out of 16 seats (or three-fourths) are occupied by Republican representatives, once again illustrating a vast dichotomy between votes and representation.

Despite its disenfranchisement of voters, politicians engage in gerrymandering for a variety of reasons. According to Oliver, these reasons can include "disadvantag[ing] voters based on race or on political parties or to shore up seats for incumbents..." Oliver also reported that it is typically fairly easy for politicians to perpetuate gerrymandering because state legislators are usually responsible for drawing legislative districts themselves, presenting a very evident conflict of interest. A clip Oliver played of an Associate Professor at George Washington University discussing gerrymandering perfectly epitomized the problems with this concept; as the professor asserted,

... That's not the voters choosing their representatives, that's the representatives choosing their voters.

In addition to highlighting the problems with gerrymandering, Oliver also discussed some potential solutions to the issue. He indicated that, overall, "In a democracy, the question of who gets to draw the [legislative] map should not have as much significance as it does." Oliver stated that there exists some possibility for redistricting reform pending an upcoming Supreme Court ruling, which could limit the allowability of redistricting for partisan reasons — something which is technically legal right now — if a lower court's ruling is upheld.

Beyond holding out hope for gerrymandering reform via the Supreme Court, Oliver also advocated for the establishment of independent commissions to draw legislative maps in the United States, an idea which would help remove some of the cutthroat partisanship from the current redistricting process. Furthermore, Oliver indicated that Democrats in particular need to be wiser about where they choose to live if they wish to secure more Congressional seats, as liberal politicians tend to "pack" into cities and limit the breadth of seats to which they could be elected.

Overall, Oliver's highly educational segment on gerrymandering served to highlight a glaring but sometimes under-acknowledged problem with the American electoral process. Hopefully his piece will serve to bring more attention to the issue and, ideally, some of the gerrymandering reforms Oliver described will begin to occur.

Images: Last Week with John Oliver/HBO