Gerrymandering’s Long History in Virginia
OverviewAnalyzing contemporary examples of gerrymandering and its effects in Virginia encourages one to understand the motivations behind Congressional redistricting, seek possible solutions to the difficult topic, and see democracy as a process of discourse, debate, and compromise.
Why I Taught These Resources
Understanding the political process in the United States involves more than understanding elections. For students to actively engage in the political process and promote a healthy democracy, it is important for them to understand the human behavior that crafted it. Understanding the motivations behind congressional redistricting and analyzing its results will allow students to see opportunities for refining the system to better meet the needs of the American people.
This article is a combination of both history and civics as it relates the story of gerrymandering in Virginia to its current practice.Of particular importance is Stroupe’s evidence that the practice of gerrymandering in Virginia has led to lower civic engagement, voter apathy, reduction in two-party competition, polarization, etc. The statistics and anecdotes from Virginia’s history will allow students to draw conclusions and analyze possible solutions to this difficult topic.I also chose this article because of its inclusion of statistical evidence, which students need to master for a variety of subject areas including mathematics. I hope that students will be able to construct a picture of redistricting that indicates a need for reform. Students will be able to use this construct to analyze proposals for reforms as suggested by Mr. Stroupe and in an outside reading by Larry J. Sabato.
It is dangerous to assert that gerrymandering is wrong. It paints a black-and-white version of democracy that is prevalent today and that seeks to undermine the culture of discourse, debate, and compromise that our founding fathers found so important in creating our democracy. What I hope is that students understand that democracy is a process and that the topic of gerrymandering is one that we should address as citizens in a modern society. What is the role that citizens can play in controlling gerrymandering? This lesson will lead students to discuss and debate the history and practice of gerrymandering in both Virginia and the nation and perhaps arrive at policy solutions for the practice that will help to strengthen citizen engagement.
How I Introduce the Sources
To introduce the topic of gerrymandering it is interesting to ask students to poll a small number of voting adults with the following questions:
- What is your congressional voting district?
- What is your state legislative district?
- State senate district?
- How often do you vote?
- When was the last election you participated in?
- How many times during your voting life has your district changed?
Using this statistical information will allow students to see that while many people know their congressional district, they have a difficult time with their state legislative districts. They may also note that their local districts are more likely to change than their congressional district. It is also highly likely that the respondents last voted in a national election and haven’t always participated in state or local elections. The collection of this data can be referred back to as the discussion of gerrymandering and the Stroupe article progresses.
I would also suggest finding a short reading on the history of gerrymandering that includes the famous 1812 cartoon by Gilbert Stuart, “Better call it a Gerrymander”. As a prior reading assignment, I might have students read from a text or research the term Gerrymander with a graphic organizer asking them to define the term, its history, and how the term is applied today. These assignments will provide students with background knowledge in advance of reading and discussing the terms in the article by Kenneth Stroupe.
Reading the Sources
To begin the reading of the article I would display the following statement from the article to the students:
While one may have some measure of confidence that his or her individual vote is counted in an election, the manner in which voting districts are configured matters a great deal in influencing the outcome of the election.
I would ask students to agree or disagree with the statement and discuss their justifications for their responses. To make the task of reading the entire article more manageable for students, I would distribute Handout #1: Gerrymandering’s Long History in Virginia: Will This Decade Mark the End? Students will complete the reading of the article by using expert groups which would be assigned a group topic: the practice of gerrymandering, its history in Virginia, the effects on the political process, and possible reform options. Students in each expert group would be responsible for reading the article and identifying the key terms, ideas, and statistics relating to the article. The groups would prepare a summary or presentation (perhaps using PowerPoint or Photo Story) that would highlight each of the topics. While reading the article students would take notes on their topics and highlight questions for each of the expert groups. In addition to the information in the article, expert groups could do additional research on their topic to add to their presentations.
After reading the article and listening to the presentations, students should be asked whether or not their reactions to the opening statement had changed. Do they still feel as though a voting district doesn’t affect the outcome of a vote? Students can then be asked to read Reforming the House from the chapter, Creating a Capital Congress, in the book A More Perfect Constitution by Larry J. Sabato. Use this as a jumping off place for a discussion about possible reform. Ask students to brainstorm other ways that the redistricting process might be adapted to fit a diverse and growing population. This should elicit a debate in your classroom about the necessity of the census coming up in 2010, the implications for Virginians, and the role that citizens can play in changing gerrymandering in the future.
Using their knowledge of the redistricting process in Virginia, the history of gerrymandering, and strategies for addressing the negative aspects of the process students should engage with state and local legislators to advocate for a change in redistricting policy. Using YLI’s (Youth Leadership Initiative) Democracy Corps or other service learning models students should write to legislators, invite them to classroom meetings or attend public hearings at the General Assembly. Empowering students to follow through on advocating for change will help to create civic habits for life and lead them to believe that, “Politics is a good thing.”