It’s a silly sounding word that often gets tossed around during election season. So, just what is gerrymandering, and how would one define it? Where did gerrymandering originate? And how can redrawing congressional district maps lead to a political advantage? We’ll tackle all these question in this post.
Gerrymandering, despite its rather charming name, is actually a fairly complex political practice. In general, gerrymandering is used to describe the process of political parties manipulating voting district maps and boundaries in order to gain an advantage. It is widespread and commonly accepted despite the fact that it is clearly skews voting results and is a technique obviously intended to undermine democracy.
Where Did Gerrymandering Originate?
Even though the actual term “gerrymander” was not coined until 1812, it was already being practiced in the United States as early as 1778, when Virginia Governor Patrick Henry convinced legislature to alter district lines in order to force his political enemy, James Madison, to run against a more difficult opponent in James Monroe. While Henry got his matchup, the scheme failed as Madison won anyway, and eventually went on to be president (although Monroe ultimately followed him as well).
Nonetheless, the practice began to take hold, and eventually garnered its current name after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry greatly redrew the state’s congressional districts to increase his election chances. The name “gerrymander” is a strange combination of “Gerry” and “salamander.” Apparently, the shape of one of the new districts reminded some, somewhat aptly, of the slimy little amphibian of the same name.
What Is Gerrymandering?
The general concept of gerrymandering is to redraw district lines in order to control the distribution of the voting population.
For example, let’s say that Party A is currently in power in the state. But there is a district, District 1, which is so overwhelmingly in favor of Party B that the outcome of that specific area is already practically assured. Meanwhile, there is a neighboring district, District 2, that is highly contested, with a fairly even split between Parties A and B. And it just so happens that a large portion of Party B supporters in District 2 reside very close to the line of division. In this case, it is in the best interests of Party A to move the dividing line between the districts in such a way that even more Party B supporters are registered to vote in District 1, which is already a foregone conclusion, and fewer in District 2. The result being that Party A loses in District 1, as they always expected to, but are now highly likely to win in District 2, a result that was far less certain before the gerrymandering took place. Democratic, no. Legal, unfortunately, yes.
In the past, in part to combat this problem, states such as Maine and Nebraska have altered their process to split electoral votes rather than choose a single winner, although since district voting still remains part of the process, it is not a complete solution.
Redrawing District Lines for Political Advantage
Gerrymandering has been used by both major American political parties for two centuries now, so it is hardly the domain of one or the other. However, a significant recent example of gerrymandering and its undeniable impact on the political landscape took place in 2012. That year the Democrats received 1.4 million more House of Representative votes than the Republicans, yet the Republicans won control with 234 members elected to Congress as opposed to just 201 for the Democrats. Of course, gerrymandering is not the only factor in these types of discrepancies, but their influence is clear to see simply by following the trail of redistricting bills.
Following the 2016 presidential election, the Associated Press had Princeton University analyze every race in the country for gerrymandering. This study determined that a large number of states were decided in part due to this practice. For example, they estimated that the Republican majority in Michigan had just a 1 in 16,000 chance of occurring without the influence of gerrymandering.
So, while it is true that recognizing gerrymandering is not hard to do, actually fixing its negative effect on the democratic process is far more difficult. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for changing voting districts, so outlawing the ability of governments to do that altogether is simply not feasible. However, it may be necessary to revise the terms of change and the powers vested with sitting governments in order to minimize the marginalization of entire sectors of the voting public.