In the United States, the political practice of ‘gerrymandering’ consists of drawing up electoral constituencies so that the candidates of a particular party are favoured. This practice uses two principal tactics: ‘cracking’ (diluting the voting power of the opposing party's supporters across many districts) and ‘packing’ (concentrating the opposing party's voting power in one district to reduce their voting power elsewhere).
This cheat sheet will further explain the practice of gerrymandering, including its historical origins, its contemporary political usage, and potential solutions to reduce its impact.
Where does the term originate from?
The term ‘gerrymandering’ itself derives from the combination of ‘Gerry’ and ‘salamander’: it was coined from a satirical cartoon that appeared in the Boston Gazette in 1812 denouncing Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry.
The Massachusetts Governor had been publicly criticised since he had approved constituency maps that were too favourable to his party, the Democratic-Republican Party. He had designed a new constituency with particularly convoluted boundaries, including those parts of the population favourable to him and excluding those unfavourable to him, therefore guaranteeing a hypothetical re-election. The lines of this constituency were so irregular and tortuous that it looked like a salamander.
Gerrymandering in practice
Over the years, gerrymandering has been used by almost every party that has found itself in the position of redrawing electoral districts. This is a task that falls to the legislatures of the individual states.
Recently, evidence of gerrymandering was seen in the 2018 North Carolina elections to the House of Representatives. The Republicans won in 10 of 13 districts with an average margin of 11.3%, while the Democrats won only 3 seats but with a much larger average margin of +44.3%. The distribution of districts was so unfavourable to the Democrats that, despite having 48.3% of the vote, they won only 3 of the 13 seats.
Democrats equally have the power to gerrymander the states that they own, most notably New York, but Republicans have control of map-drawing in more states across the country.
The only legal obstacle to gerrymandering is the Voting Rights Act, one of the fundamental laws against racial segregation, which was passed in 1965. In particular, two paragraphs are crucial: the first obliges states with a segregationist past to review any change in constituencies, while the second allows any citizen to appeal if a change in boundaries causes dilution of the minority vote.
Segregationist = relating to, or advocating for the policy of enforced separation of different racial groups.
Political impact of gerrymandering
Gerrymandering remains one of the most obvious techniques to influence electoral results; however, it is much more subtle to slash funding to polling stations in certain neighbourhoods which leads to poorly trained staff and fewer vote counting machines. This makes voting a challenge for those who do not have a car, and even those who do drive are forced to wait for hours in line. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a leading civil rights organisation, black and Latino voters have to wait 45% longer than white voters on average. For every hour they wait, the probability of them voting decreases by 1%.
Even if there is agreement on which districts are being politically gerrymandered, there is little agreement on a solution. The most common proposal is to use independent or non-partisan commissions for redistricting, which is already done in several states. Nevertheless, many opponents say it is difficult to find ‘non-partisan’ committee members, with those in power knowing that gerrymandering provides them with a distinct political advantage.
Gerrymandering has continued to plague American politics to this day, especially since minority voters have become more vocal about the violation of their voting rights. The problem will prove difficult to solve as the quest for power can be a powerful incentive for political wrongdoing. However, careful monitoring of redistricting, combined with court action when necessary, can help reduce this issue and ensure that districts serve their original purpose of providing fair representation for all.
Edited by Alex Leggett