What Gerrymandering Means and Why It’s Here to Stay: QuickTake

Gerrymandering, the process of drawing congressional district lines (in sometimes absurd ways) to fortify one political party at the expense of another, is as old as the U.S. republic. Good-government groups grouse that it lets politicians choose their constituents, rather than the other way around. As district lines are adjusted to reflect the 2020 U.S. census, complaints about gerrymandering are sure to be on the rise.

1. What exactly is gerrymandering?

Under the principle of proportional representation, the outlines of the nation’s 435 House districts are adjusted after each once-a-decade census to make sure they have roughly the same number of people. (In states that have only one House seat, the need for redistricting is effectively moot.) Gerrymandering can result in districts being comically shaped to get the right number of people and the hoped-for political breakdown. One district in Pennsylvania was said by critics to resemble the cartoon character Goofy kicking Donald Duck.

2. Why is it called gerrymandering?

In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a state redistricting plan to favor his party over the opposition. A Boston newspaper cartoon depicted one of the districts as a salamander and invoked the amalgam “Gerry-mander,” etching it into the political vernacular for more than two centuries.

3. Who draws the lines?

That varies by state. Traditionally the task has been left to the state legislatures and governors, which means the party that controls two branches of state government can steer the direction of elections for a decade. To counter the influence of politics, 10 states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Montana (which is gaining a second House member based on the 2020 Census), New Jersey, Virginia and Washington — have shifted “primary” redistricting responsibility to an independent or bipartisan commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five other states have advisory commissions to help state legislators draw district lines. Iowa empowers a nonpartisan state legislative agency to draw district lines without taking political data into consideration, but the map is subject to approval by the state legislature.

4. What’s the problem?

One frequent criticism is that, by making many congressional districts safely Democratic or Republican, gerrymandering undermines the competitiveness of federal elections and serves the interests of hyper-partisan candidates, thus contributing to political polarization and gridlock. There’s also a racial element to the gerrymander debate, as minority groups can be given or deprived of representation based on where boundaries are drawn.

5. How exactly does gerrymandering work?

There are two primary tactics that governing Party A can use to limit the number of congressional seats Party B can win. One is called “packing,” or cramming many of Party B’s voters into a few districts that it will win overwhelmingly, with many (wasted) votes to spare. The other technique, “cracking,” splinters Party B’s voters among multiple districts so that it can’t prevail in any of them. Using such techniques, a party can turn a narrow lead in statewide voters into a decisive and lasting advantage in a state’s congressional delegation. In North Carolina, for instance, House Republicans in 2016 won 10 of the 13 seats with just 53% of the popular vote. Better technology, and more-detailed information about voter preferences, have made gerrymandering an even more potent tool.

6. Is this a matter for the courts?

It can be. In 2018, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, citing that state’s constitution, invalidated a congressional map under which Republicans had won 13 of 18 congressional districts in the elections of 2012, 2014 and 2016 — this, in a state about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The Pennsylvania court implemented its own map for the 2018 election, and Democrats went on to win nine of the 18 districts that year and again in 2020. There was some expectation that the U.S. Supreme Court would get involved as well. But in a much-watched 2019 ruling, the court said it has no constitutional authority to throw out voting maps for being too partisan.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling.
  • A Congressional Research Service report on redistricting.
  • The Library of Congress recalls “Elbridge Gerry and the Monstrous Gerrymander.”
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