Gerrymandering in the Lion City

Oscar Copeland

Gerrymandering is as old as politics itself. The term refers to the drawing of legislative district lines in such a way as to thwart opposition victory or to enhance the power of a political party.

The word was originally coined by an American newspaper in the 1800s by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who passed a law that allowed political parties to redraw district lines as they saw fit.

If a party was in the majority, they could vote to have district lines redrawn to fit their own political agenda. The redrawing of the district lines became so skewed and arbitrary that the lines resembled that of a salamander – hence the name Gerrymandering.

With this law in place, the majority party was now able to manipulate the voting map to enhance its own electoral victory.

Since then, gerrymandering has caused a significant hindrance in the democratic process. In the US, only between 10-15 percent of voters actually approve of Congress. Yet in the 2016 elections, only eight incumbents out of the 435 seats were defeated at the polls.

Furthermore, the average margin of victory was 37 percent, making these elections landslide victories for the majority party. The results ran counter to the prevailing sentiment of the electorate and completely derailed the democratic process.

Whether Democrat or Republican, the party in power is able to utilize this political tool to skew the results in its favor.

This problem is common in many countries. Singapore is no exception. In 2015, Singapore’s Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) decided to make changes to the voting districts across the city-state; changing the number of SMCs and GRCs.

According to the Committee, the redrawing of district lines before every general election is to “take into consideration significant increases or decreases in the number of electors in the current electoral divisions as a result of population shifts and housing developments.”

Such a measure does not necessarily reflect the actual changes that are occurring. In 2011, the EBRC announced that they were going to change the districts of Nee Soon Central and Nee Soon East from SMCs to GRCs; which coincidentally happened to be where opposition parties saw major gains in the vote-share in the previous election.

With this tactic of gerrymandering, the PAP is able to include more GRCs and, in the process, hurt opposition’s success as parties in GRCs need to elect 4-6 members as opposed to simply having to elect only one member in the SMCs.

This puts the smaller opposition parties at a disadvantage because they are unable to gather enough resources, candidates, and votes needed to compete effectively in the group member districts.

Even if there is an upset within one of these districts, as seen by the Worker’s Party in 2011, there is nothing keeping the PAP from simply redrawing that district in the next election. 

The GRC system needs major reform in order to ensure the election process provides equal representation across party lines. With the “winner take all” approach, the minority voice is not being given a fair platform to be represented through the voting process.

The problem can be partly resolved by scrapping the undemocratic GRC system and returning to the conventional one-to-one contests. In addition, an independent electoral commission which does not sit in the Prime Minister’s Office can be introduced. This would allow a more open and transparent delineation of electoral boundaries.

As I mentioned, the practice of gerrymandering has caused huge problems in election systems all over the world and the problem needs urgent attention. There must be changes in order to decrease the impact of unfair delineation of voting districts and, in so doing, put power back in the hands of the people.

Oscar Copeland is a student at the University of California, Berkeley and an intern at the SDP. He wrote this article as part of his research work during his stint with us. He is one of two interns placed by the Academic Internship Council (AIC) based in Singapore. International students seeking internships with the AIC are placed with organisations in various sectors in Singapore including business, science, finance and politics. The SDP has a regular programme for interns and we especially encourage local students to intern with us. Please email your enquiries to: [email protected].