Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing boundaries of congressional districts to keep the party in power from being voted out. While senators represent an entire state, congressional representatives cover a specific district within a state. Because representatives are allocated in proportion to population, the boundaries of their districts can change, depending on population fluctuation. Boundaries have to be revisited every ten years, after the national census.
Gerrymandering’s history is as old as the country itself. In 1788, just as the US was being founded, Patrick Henry and his cohorts tried to draw the boundary of a congressional district to make sure James Madison wouldn’t be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It wasn’t “officially” named until 1812, when Governor Gerry of Massachusetts drew the boundary of a district that was so convoluted it reminded people of a salamander. Forever after, it’s been termed a “gerrymander.”
Who draws these lines? It depends. Some states have an independent redistricting commission, but in most states, the state legislature draws the lines. When one side controls the legislature, they are able to draw the boundaries where they like, although there are criteria they have to follow to ensure that the districts are compact, contiguous, nondiscriminatory, and preserve existing political communities. Of course, definitions of “compact” and “nondiscriminatory” can vary widely.
Here’s an example of the way drawing a district may give one side or another an advantage:
Both these district boundaries fulfill the criteria, but they yield opposite results.
Gerrymandering has resulted in lopsided domination of the House of Representatives by Republicans. The Institute for Southern Studies has analyzed the last three national elections, and found that “[i]n 2012, 41 percent of Southerners voted for a Democrat, but Democrats made up only 29 percent of U.S. representatives from the South. That meant Southern Democratic voters were four times more likely to be underrepresented in Congress than the national average.”
Gerrymandering often disenfranchises people of color, either by drawing a district so it’s majority-minority, thus corralling all their votes for one candidate, or by drawing multiple districts so the effect of their vote is diluted. Current law upholds that partisan gerrymanders are okay, but racial gerrymanders violate the Constitution. In order to maintain the pretense that these districts are not racially discriminatory, Republicans have argued that they are drawing the districts to disadvantage the Democratic party– the fact that minorities tend to vote Democratic is just an unfortunate side effect.
Recently, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, and Texas have all gone to court to defend their maps from accusations of racial gerrymandering. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the North Carolina and Virginia cases in December 2016, and is expected to hand down a decision by June. More interesting is a Wisconsin case, where a federal court ruled that gerrymandering on partisan grounds is unconstitutional. That case will be going to the Supreme Court as well. If the Supreme Court agrees, it will deal gerrymandering a huge blow and pave the way for fairer representation, whether Republican or Democrat