Gerrymandering is the act of manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district, so as to give one political party more election districts than the other party and, as a result, more votes. Gerrymandering can also be used to help or hurt a demographic in particular, such as the elderly, or the poor. While the process is technically illegal, it is also a difficult thing to prove.
Because a state’s legislature is almost always controlled by only one party, it goes without saying that it would be in that party’s best interests to establish district lines in such a way as to either gain more seats than the opposition has, or to hold on to the seats that they already have. To explore this concept, consider the following gerrymandering definition.
Definition of Gerrymandering
- The act of manipulating election district lines so as to give one party or another as many votes as possible.
What is Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering is the illegal act of drawing electoral district lines in such a way so as to give the gerrymandering party more votes in an election. Several forms of manipulation have been used during gerrymandering’s history. As an example of gerrymandering, one party may try to force the opposition into the least number of districts by expanding its own districts’ lines. Alternatively, the majority may try to spread their voters out so that there are more of their voters present in what would otherwise be the minority’s areas. This effectively makes it less likely that any one party could exist in a majority in these areas.
Gerrymandering has affected every one of America’s states, and while North Carolina and Michigan have been found to be some of the most glaring examples, Florida, Maryland, and Virginia have also been brought to task and accused of being less than truthful about the way they draw their districts’ lines. Interestingly, a great way to counter this problem is by using math. Algorithms can actually be used in order to determine the fairest and most compact design for an electoral district, leaving no room for politicians to poison the well, so to speak.
Redistricting had been occurring long before then name was created for it, having existed even before the Constitution was put into effect. In 1788, Virginia’s former governor, Patrick Henry, advocated for the state legislature to reestablish the Fifth Congressional District, which forced Henry’s political adversary, James Madison, to run against James Monroe. Henry’s plan failed and Madison won anyway, becoming the fourth President of the United States. Monroe did, however, end up eventually succeeding Madison as president.
Every time a census is conducted, the issue of gerrymandering is raised without fail, and redistricting plans are always challenged. Both Congress and the Supreme Court have addressed the issue throughout gerrymandering history. Some instances in particular include:
- In 1842, Congress passed an Apportionment Act, which required that congressional districts be both connected and tightly packed.
- In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that districts are to establish borders that are within reason, and that they are responsible for the proper representation of each district’s population.
- In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that the act of manipulating district borders for political gain (gerrymandering) is unconstitutional.
How Gerrymandering Got its Name
Gerrymandering actually got its name from Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts who served from 1810 to 1812. Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted the state to be overwhelmingly in favor of what was, at that time, the Republican majority – a move that, of course, greatly upset the Federalist opposition.
When someone pointed out that one of the congressional districts looked like a salamander on the map, one of the Federalists responded that the image wasn’t of a salamander, but of a “gerrymander” (a combination of “Gerry”j and salamander), and so the term was born.
The first time the term “gerrymander” appeared in print was on March 26, 1812, when the Boston Gazette published a political cartoon that showed Essex County’s brand new district – that which resembled a salamander. The cartoon had the term “gerrymander” printed above it, and it was at that point that the term was unofficially added to the nation’s political jargon.
Following enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which sought to remove barriers designed to keep African Americans from voting, a practice ensued of spreading minorities thinly across voting districts, making their numbers too few to make any sort of significant impact within their districts when voting for their preferred candidates. This practice is referred to as “racial gerrymandering,” and it is a prime example of gerrymandering that infringes upon voters’ rights, rather than simply being beneficial to the majority party. The problem was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions, which upheld the constitutionality of the Act.
So how did the Court attempt to solve this problem? It established what are now known as “majority-minority districts.” In such a district, the majority is made up of voters who are all of voting age, and who all belong to a single minority group. What ended up happening, however, was that, instead of giving black voters more voting power, the establishment of majority-minority districts stripped them of what little power they had. This happened because, since the minorities were concentrated into, and gained power only in specific areas, they simultaneously lost their voting power in the remaining areas.
Example of Racial Gerrymandering
Throughout gerrymandering history, many cases deal squarely with the issue of racial gerrymandering, such as Bethune-Hill v. Virginia Board of Elections, a case that was decided mere months ago. Golden Bethune-Hill, a voter from Virginia, joined with other Virginia voters to sue the state’s Board of Elections, claiming that race was used to establish district lines for the House of Delegates – a practice deemed unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The state of Virginia maintained that it carried out its redistricting in a fair and legal way, and that the process had the support of both parties. The Court didn’t see it that way. The U.S. Circuit Court held in its Decision of October 22, 2015 that Virginia’s redistricting did indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause and, as a result, Virginia’s 2011 redistricting plan was deemed invalid.
Since, in Virginia, the minority electorate tends to lean in a more liberal direction in every majority-minority district, padding electoral districts with minorities is essentially the same thing as padding numbers with Democrats. So, on that note, Virginia’s district map tends to favor Republicans in much the same way that it tends to favor Caucasians, which is why experts claim that the majority-minority districts are more beneficial to Republicans than to Democrat minorities. While most of these majority-minority districts are located in the southern states, northern states like New York and Ohio support the practice as well.
Gerrymandering Examples before the Supreme Court
Reynolds v. Sims
Several gerrymandering cases illustrate the lengths to which some politicians have gone in an effort to gain more votes. For instance, in 1964, an issue arose in Alabama wherein the legislature was accused of discriminating against voters by using a very outdated census (from 1900, to be specific) to skew voter numbers. As a result, the districts were not being represented fairly, since their populations had, of course, significantly grown since the census was published.
If those districts had been measured more accurately, it would have been discovered that their numbers would have significantly changed the voting landscape. The lower court found that, not only was the districting plan a violation of equal protection, but so too were the two newer processes that were designed to yield the same results. The case was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Shaw v. Reno
In 1990, after North Carolina conducted its census, the state was granted a twelfth seat in the House of Representatives, and their General Assembly developed a reapportionment plan that incorporated a majority-black district. The Attorney General objected to this plan, stating that the creation of a second majority-black district would better serve the state’s minority strength. As a result, the General Assembly created a second majority-black district.
Because the new plan’s district lines were so blatantly irregular in their design, the legislature was accused of having created a racial gerrymander. In addition, engaging in racial gerrymandering by separating voters into separate districts by their race violated the voters’ constitutional rights by stripping away their ability to take part in what would have otherwise been a “color-blind” election. The Supreme Court agreed that the plan could only be seen as an attempt to segregate voters by their race.
Davis v. Bandemer
In 1981, the state of Indiana developed an apportionment plan based on its 1980 census. In 1982, after elections resulted in Republicans being awarded more seats in the state legislature, even though they received a larger number of actual votes, democrats filed a suit in federal district court, claiming that the plan actually diluted the Democratic vote by mixing districts, using gerrymandering to blur district lines. In this example of gerrymandering, the democrats complained that the state’s actions had violated their rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The District Court determined that the Democrats had a valid claim, and that an equal protection violation had occurred. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the results of a single election could not be used to prove unconstitutional discrimination. It also concluded that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution does not confer group rights to an equal share of political power.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Apportionment Plan – The allocation of seats in a legislature, such as in Congress, or allocation of taxes, according to a plan.
- Electoral District – A geographical area that is considered a unit, for the purposes of voting in an election.
- Majority-Minority District – An electoral district, such as a U.S. congressional district, in which the majority of constituents are racial or ethnic minorities.