Redelineation, gerrymandering, malapportionment: Political lingo explained

Melanie Chalil
Know your political terms and how they affect your vote. — Picture by Hafzi Mohamed

PETALING JAYA, April 24 — As Malaysians prepare for the 14th general election, buzzwords like redelineation, gerrymandering and malapportionment are inescapable.

But what do they really mean?

Here is an explainer to help distinguish the different terms and how they impact an election.

In Malaysia, electoral boundaries are redrawn at least every eight years

Redelineation is a standard exercise in any democracy. In Malaysia, the Electoral Commission (EC) has the responsibility of reviewing and recommending changes in electoral constituencies at least every eight years as stated in Article 113(2) of the Federal Constitution.

The exercise is carried out to reflect population growth

Over time, an area’s population (number of voters) will change due to factors such as natural growth, migration within the country and developments. For example, developed states like Selangor, Perak and Johor will have more eligible voters as the years go by.

One vote one value? Not always

This is where those who think “one vote one value” are in for a reality check. Though a redelineation exercise serves the aim of making electoral constituencies equal and proportionate, it is not always the case.

Let’s say constituency A has 20,000 voters and constituency B has 200,000 voters but they each have one member of parliament to represent the seat. Constituency B may be 10 times bigger but is given the same representation as constituency A — this means the value of a vote in constituency B is 10 times less than that of A’s. This is called malapportionment, a term used to describe poorly divided electoral districts that prevent highly populated areas from having equal representation.

An illustration explaining how more votes do not necessarily mean victory. — Infographics from Flowingdata.com

What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering happens when electoral constituencies are redrawn to give one party a political advantage. Gerrymandering is also used to benefit or suppress an ethnic, racial, religious or class group.

It also can be used to protect the political position of a party that is in power. The term was first used in 1812 in the Boston Gazette when Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the election districts of Massachusetts to favour his party. The word “gerrymander” is a combination of Gerry’s name and salamander because after the redistricting exercise, the area on the map closely resembled a mythical salamander.

Gerrymandering happens in developed democracies too

In Australia, in the 70s, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was notorious for redelineating electoral boundaries to a point where rural electorates had half as many voters as metropolitan voters. Today, it remains one of the most famous gerrymandering examples.

Bjelke-Petersen used gerrymandering to keep his party in power for 32 years. Under his rule, the controversial figure outlawed street marches without a permit (which was often impossible to obtain) and famously banned history books. Eventually, systemic police corruption led to an inquiry that toppled his government.

There are algorithms to combat gerrymandering

According to Scientific American, Duke University mathematician Jonathan Mattingly designed an algorithm that creates random alternative versions of North Carolina’s 2012 election maps. His aim was to quantify the degree and impact of gerrymandering.

In his experiment, which produced 24,000 simulated map versions, Mattingly discovered that even when five out of 435 seats are gerrymandered, it was enough to sway crucial votes. Among all Western democracies, the US ranked last in the Electoral Integrity Project’s voting fairness index.