I first got interested in gerrymandering on that long-ago night in 2012 when President Obama was re-elected. By 10 PM, it was clear that Obama had won. The next morning, I took a closer look at the returns. I grew up, and currently live, in Harris County, Texas, which includes much of the Houston metropolitan area. After Los Angeles County, California, and Cook County, Illinois, ours is the third-most populous county in the nation. Its population, close to 4.6 million, is greater than the populations of twenty-seven states. So I was stunned to see that Obama was ahead of Romney by two. Not 2 percent. Not 0.2 percent. Not 2,000. Two votes: 579,070 to 579,068. I looked for the fine print. But with nearly 99.2 percent of precincts reporting, these were the numbers. (That last 0.8 percent turned out more heavily for Obama. He won by 971 votes, out of 1,188,585 cast.) That made Harris County, by far, the most closely divided large population center in the country. Under a truly representative system, a county this large and this evenly divided would hold the key to the House of Representatives, and thus open one of the doors to national power. You would expect every race to be hotly contested, wildly expensive, and closely watched. They almost never are.
In 2003, the districts were changed by Tom DeLay, the former congressman and House majority leader later convicted for election violations. (Amid great controversy, the conviction was subsequently overturned.) This was a break with precedent: a redistricting had never occurred in any state between censuses. And it was effective: in the 2004 elections, six incumbent Democrats lost in Texas. This helped the Republican Party increase its House majority by three additional representatives—in a year when the Democratic share of the popular vote rose nationally.
Since then, the number of House seats in Texas has grown from thirty-two to thirty-six, but even with all of them up every two years, on only half a dozen occasions has one changed hands. After the 2010 census, the Texas Legislature, which draws the lines, hewed closely to the DeLay gerrymander. The results are clear. An average district has about 710,000 people. That would divide fairly evenly into the 4.6 million people in Harris County. So there should be six districts entirely within Harris County. But there aren’t.
Instead, the Houston metropolitan area, of which Harris County is a part, is divided into nine districts whose boundaries are, literally, all over the map. One touches Louisiana; one goes halfway to Dallas; one runs from northwest Harris County to the northern half of Travis County, putting parts of Austin and Houston in the same district.
That didn’t just happen. Urban, Democratic-leaning voters are grouped into as few districts as possible, or divided into little parcels and grouped with Republican exurbs and rural areas. The process is known as “packing and cracking.”