What is Gerrymandering?

How Political Parties Choose Voters Instead of Voters Choosing Them

U.S. Supreme Court hears gerrymandering case.
Spectators wait in line to get into the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 to witness hearings on a gerrymandering case. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Gerrymandering is the act of drawing of congressional, state legislative or other political boundaries to favor a political party or one particular candidate for elected office. The purpose of gerrymandering is to grant one party power over another by creating districts that hold dense concentrations of voters who are favorable to their policies.

The physical impact of gerrymandering can be seen on any map of congressional districts.

Many boundaries zig and zag east and west, north and south across city, township and county lines as if for no reason at all. But the political impact is much more significant. Gerrymandering reduces the number of competitive congressional races across the United States by segregating like-minded voters from each other.

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Gerrymandering has become common in American politics, and is often blamed for the gridlock in Congress, polarization of the electorate and disenfranchisement among voters. President Barack Obama, speaking in his final State of the Union address in 2016, called on both the Republican and Democratic parties to end the practice.

“If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”

In the end, though, most cases of gerrymandering are legal. 

Why Gerrymandering is Bad

Gerrymandering often leads to disproportionate politicians from one party being elected to office. And it creates districts of voters who are socioeconomically, racially or politically alike so that members of Congress are safe from potential challengers and, as a result, have little reason to compromise with their colleagues from the other party.

 

"The process is marked by secrecy, self-dealing and backroom logrolling among elected officials. The public is largely shut out of the process," wrote Erika L. Wood, the director of the Redistricting & Representation Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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In the 2012 congressional elections, for example, Republicans won 53 percent of the popular vote but carried three out of four House seats in states where they oversaw redistricting. The same was true for Democrats. In states where they controlled the process of drawing congressional district boundaries, they captured seven out of 10 seats with only 56 percent of the popular vote.

Aren’t There Any Laws Against Gerrymandering?

The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in 1964, called for a fair and equitable distribution of voters among congressional districts, but its ruling dealt mostly with the actual number of voters in each and whether they were rural or urban, not the partisan or racial makeup of each:

"Since the achieving of fair and effective representation for all citizens is concededly the basic aim of legislative apportionment, we conclude that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election of state legislators. Diluting the weight of votes because of place of residence impairs basic constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment just as much as invidious discriminations based upon factors such as race or economic status."

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 took on the issue of using race as a factor in drawing congressional districts, saying it is illegal to deny minorities their constitutional right “to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” The law was designed to end discrimination against black Americans, particularly those in the South after the Civil War.

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"A state may take race into account as one of several factors when drawing district lines — but without a compelling reason, race cannot be the 'predominant' reason for a district’s shape," according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Supreme Court followed up in 2015 by saying states could form independent, nonpartisan commissions to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries.

How Gerrymandering Happens

Attempts to gerrymander happen only once a decade and soon after years ending in a zero. That’s because states are required by law to redraw all 435 congressional and legislative boundaries based on the decennial census every 10 years. The redistricting process begins soon after the U.S. Census Bureau completes its work and begins sending data back to the states. Redistricting must be complete in time to for the 2012 elections.

Redistricting is one of the most important processes in American politics. The way congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn determines who wins federal and state elections, and ultimately which political party holds the power in making crucial policy decisions.

"Gerrymandering is not hard," Sam Wang, the founder of Princeton University's Election Consortium, wrote in 2012. "The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as 'packing.' Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, 'cracking' opposition groups into many districts."

Examples of Gerrymandering

The most concerted effort to redraw political boundaries to benefit a political party in modern history happened after the 2010 census. The project, orchestrated by Republicans using sophisticated software and about $30 million, was called REDMAP, for Redistricting Majority Project. The program began with successful efforts to regain majorities in key states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin.

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"The political world is fixated on whether this year's elections will deliver an epic rebuke of President Barack Obama and his party. If that happens, it could end up costing Democrats congressional seats for a decade to come," the Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in The Wall Street Journal before the midterm elections in 2010.

He was right.

The Republican victories in statehouses across the country allowed the GOP in those states to then control the redistricting process taking effect in 2012 and shape congressional races, and ultimately policy, until the next census comes around in 2020.

 

Who is Responsible for Gerrymandering?

 

Both major political parties are responsible for the misshapen legislative and congressional districts in the United States. But how does the process actually work? In most cases, the process of drawing congressional and legislative boundaries is left to state legislatures. Some states do impanel special commissions. Some redistricting commissions are expected to resist political influence and act independently from the parties and the elected officials in that state. But not all.

Here’s a breakdown of who is responsible for redistricting in each state:

State legislatures: In 37 states, the elected state lawmakers are responsible for drawing their own legislative districts and the boundaries for the congressional districts in their states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. The governors in most of those states have the authority to veto the plans.

The states that allow their legislatures to perform the redistricting are:

  • Alabama
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Independent commissions: These apolitical panels are used in six states to redraw legislative districts. The keep politics and the potential for gerrymandering out of the process, state lawmakers and public officials are prohibited from serving on the commissions. Some states also prohibit legislative staffers and lobbyists, as well.

The six states that employ independent commissions are:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Washington

Politician commissions: Seven states create panels made up of state lawmakers and other elected officials to redraw their own legislative boundaries. While these states take redistricting out of the hands of the entire legislature, the process is highly political, or partisan, and often results in gerrymandering districts.

The seven states that use politician commissions are:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania

Why Is It Called Gerrymandering?

The term gerrymander is derived from the name of a Massachusetts governor in the early 1800s, Elbridge Gerry.

Charles Ledyard Norton, writing in 1890 book Political Americanisms, blamed Gerry for signing into a law a bill in 1811 "readjusting the representative districts so as to favor the Democrats and weaken the Federalists, although the last named party polled nearly two-thirds of the votes cast."

Norton explained the emergence of the epithet "gerrymander" this way:

"A fancied resemblance of a map of the districts thus treated led [Gilbert] Stuart, the painter, to add a few lines with his pencil, and to say to Mr. [Benjamin] Russell, editor of the Boston Centinel, 'That will do for a salamander.' Russell glanced at it: 'Salamander!' said he, 'Call it a Gerrymander!' The epithet took at once and became a Federalist war-cry, the map caricature being published as a campaign document."

The late William Safire, a political columnist and linguist for The New York Times, made note of the word's pronunciation in his 1968 book Safire's New Political Dictionary:

"Gerry's name was pronounced with a hard g; but because of the similarity of the word with 'jerrybuilt' (meaning rickety, no connection with gerrymander) the letter g is pronounced as j."