College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Professor’s Book Details Rules to Prevent Gerrymandering

Jonathan Winburn, Assistant Professor of Political Science

With the new U.S. Census out, political redistricting to reflect new population estimates across the country is a contentious exercise that can have major implications for the balance of political power.  Jonathan Winburn, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Mississippi, has authored a book, “The Realities of Redistricting: Following the Rules and Limiting Gerrymandering in State Legislative Redistricting,” that provides insight into how to make that process more equitable.

“Jon Winburn’s work integrates an amazing range of election, census and state-level data to measure the impact of redistricting,” said Richard Forgette, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science. “All 50 states are currently redrawing political boundaries after the 2010 census.  Professor Winburn’s research convincingly shows that redistricting processes—the rules for how states draw legislative lines—influence election outcomes.”

Redistricting is one of the most political and often contentious processes in American politics as politicians, especially in the state legislatures, fight over how to draw the lines that will form election districts for the next decade, said Winburn.

“This is contentious and controversial because many see how the maps are drawn as having a direct influence on who gets elected,” Winburn said. “People usually think of this in terms of gerrymandering or drawing districts to benefit one group over another. Partisan gerrymandering benefits one party over another and incumbent gerrymandering helps those already in office, regardless of party, by drawing lines to protect themselves from potential challenges.”

Winburn’s research focuses on state legislative redistricting and specifically how gerrymandering can be limited. The book examines ways to limit the negative effects of redistricting for the voters and making the system more responsive to citizens.

“I argue that having certain rules in place can limit gerrymandering regardless of partisan politics,” Winburn said. “Specifically, protecting communities of interest is one way to limit gerrymandering.”

One example of a community of interest is counties, which have clear, recognizable geographic boundaries. Many states require district lines to follow county boundaries to the fullest extent possible, and in the states that enforce the rule, Winburn finds less evidence of gerrymandering. Mississippi has a similar rule. But legislators do not really follow it, and Mississippi lines cross county boundaries at a high rate.

“Another area I examine is the use of independent commissions, as the traditional method is to allow the legislature to handle the process,” Winburn said. “Much of the reform movement across the country focuses on the use of independent commissions. Overall, I find that they can be successful in limiting gerrymandering, but this is not absolutely the case.”

A review of Winburn’s book by Gary E. Bugh of the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University, said the book explores multiple incentives and constraints on remappers in order to outline the conditions under which partisan influence on redistricting is most likely.

“His lesson that rules help control partisan reapportionment is an important one for understanding and limiting gerrymandering,” Bugh said. “Winburn provides some suggestions that are relevant for activists working to remove partisanship from redistricting.”

For more information about the MS census and redistricting, visit http://www.msjrc.state.ms.us/.ms.us