What is gerrymandering and how does it work

What Is Gerrymandering? And Why Does it Matter?

Here’s what you need to know about the legal battle over the manipulating of district maps to entrench a governing party’s political power.

You may have heard the term gerrymandering over the years and really not thought twice about it. However, it is an extremely partisan issue that has given unfair advantage to certain political candidates throughout our history. In honor of the upcoming election my blogs will focus on voting rights and electoral issues to better understand the process and what these concepts mean and how they translate to in modern day politics. First let’s start with defining the basic concept of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering defined

To put it succinctly, gerrymandering is a practice that is used to establish an unfair political advantage for one party by manipulating the boundaries of voting districts. Another way to look at it is when one political group tries to change the voting districts to create pockets that are predominantly one party or the other. The practice puts more votes of the winners into the district.  It is a re-drawing of the boundaries of voting districts in the state in order to favor one party in those districts. Historically, political districts were re-drawn to under represent minority classes and favor Caucasian voters. A synonym for gerrymandering would be to manipulate. Although this may seem like an illegal practice the various Supreme Court decisions and political rallying have created a haven for unfair practices to continue through centuries throughout our nation’s history.

What are Voting Districts and How Can They Be Manipulated?

In writing this blog, I myself had to research various issues to come to a solid understanding of exactly how gerrymandering impacts our elections and how they can be skewed so drastically based upon this political act. It is important to understand what an electoral district really is and how it is drawn. An electoral district is often also known as an election district, a precinct, an electoral area, a constituency, a voting district, a legislative district, or electorate. For purposes of this blog, we will refer to an electoral district which is an administrative subdivision of a larger state administrative region created to provide its population with representation in the larger states legislative body. The legislative body determines each district’s boundaries and whether that district will have one representative or more than one representative. Districts can be drawn on any basis and not necessarily based on population. By drawing districts wear a large number of minority voters reside and only have one representative can drastically change the political balance of power in the state regardless of the popular vote. This means that the majority of the state can vote Democrat but because of the districts the Republicans can take Control.


Although this example is a huge simplification, let’s say that we have a small state with 50 people where there are 20 Democrats and 50 Republicans with five districts. By using a state with 50 people, it is clear to see how the drawing of districts can determine the political outcome of elections. The process is exactly the same as the example of a 50 person state below. Districts are drawn to exclude or include more of one party or another which gives control of the House and Senate unfairly.  This process has been used to create lopsided representation in the house for the past several elections.

Let’s take an example play out this example of the fifty person state. The lines can be drawn so that there are three district’s entirely Republican, and two districts entirely Democrat with 10 Democrats each of two districts and 10 Republicans each in three districts.  Contrarily, the lines can be drawn so that all five districts have a majority of Republicans by placing six Republicans and four Democrats in each district.  You can also slice up the Districts so that, although there are only 20 Democrats, you can organize it so that there are five districts three of which have six Democrats and four Republicans so that the Democrats can control three of the five seats even though they are a minority in numbers.

It is important to note that generally the controlling party draws the district lines to determine the voting districts. You can see how gerrymandering can drastically impact political representation. You can draw the lines specifically to favor one party and have all or a majority representatives elected from that party even if that party is actually only a minority of the voting sector.

This is the best way that I have found to explain gerrymandering to establish the profound impact that has on our elections. In Baker vs Carr,  369 U.S. 186 (1962) the United States Supreme Court declared that gerrymandering is illegal,  however , it is a practice that is commonly used in most states. And given the fact that the controlling party is the one that draws the district lines, you can see how a change of power can become difficult or impossible.  In the landmark case of Baker, A lawsuit was filed against the state of Tennessee because they had not conducted redistricting for over 50 years. The state argued that the composition of the various legislative districts in their state constituted a political question and not a matter for court decision as the presidential case of Colegrove vs Green, 328 U.S. 549 (1946), was the US Supreme Court case that held “one person, one vote”

In Justice Baker vs Carr, William Brennan delivered the 6 to 2 m decision that was strongly dissented by the other two justices ruling that redistricting was a political question but remanded the case to the federal courts for further adjudication.  In that case, the plaintiff was Charles Baker who was a republican and lived in Shelby county Tennessee and had served as mayor of the small town of Millington. Without going into a long statement of the facts, the case perplexed the judges who actually asked for a re-argument of the case which is very unusual because there was not a clear majority after the first arguing of the case. The issue, which has been going on for centuries was:

Is districting of political districts a matter for the state’s government and not the courts or does the fact that redistricting disenfranchises certain minority populations fall within the Equal Protection clause of United States Constitution?

The decision was handed down almost a year after the case was argued and the court split 6-2 ruling that Baker’s case was a matter for the courts with three concurring and two dissenting opinions. William Brennan reformulated political question doctrine and identified six factors to determine which cases were political in nature giving rise to judicial interpretation.  The standards laid out by Justice Brennan in the decision were as cool confusing as much of the text of the decision as far as making a practical application. Therefore gerrymandering continues as a political practice with challenges on going around the country to this day.

So How is Gerrymandering Used?

Although the definition seems difficult the concept dates back to the beginning of politics in this country and really is a remnant of political divide and racism in this country. In the case of Shaw vs Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993),  North Carolina planned to redraw their district lines to create one majority black district instead of several districts that were actually a majority of African Americans.  Remember, lines do not have to be drawn according to population.  This was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in the area of manipulating political districts and racial gerrymandering. The court held in a 5-4 decision that redistricting based on race must be held to a standard of strict scrutiny under the equal protection clause.  In that case, the U.S. Attorney General rejected a North Carolina congressional redistricting plan due to the fact that the plan created one black-majority district. Five North Carolina residents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this oddly shaped redistricting plan, alleging that its only purpose was to secure the election of additional black representatives. Following a three-judge District Court ruling that plaintiff’s failed to state a constitutional claim, the plaintiff appealed to the US Supreme. The court held the State created a racially gerrymandered district which was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  The case was remanded for further review.  In that case, the state was attempting to provide political representation for minority voters with an extremely creative and obvious use of political districts.

In the United States, each state elects a specific number of representatives based upon population for the house. The larger your population, the more representatives you have. Each representative represents a district Which is a specific geographic area representing their voters.   Ideally, you want to have a range of voters who represent the views of the political population across the state. However, gerrymandering specifically rebukes that ideal and creates districts that represent a majority of a specific party.  This process of re-drawing the party lines in districts is known as gerrymandering and has been used for the last two centuries. In fact, Governor Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1810 redrew the map of the senate districts in 1810 in order to weaken the federalist   party and the term was created.

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