Gerrymandering 101: What it is, and why it’s illegal

Rights, News

Gerrymandering—the redrawing of voting districts to favor a particular political party—has been around since the earliest days of the United States. In 1788, Virginia Governor Patrick Henry collaborated with the state legislature to draw a congressional district that forced his political foe James Madison to run, successfully it turned out, against a more formidable opponent, James Monroe. (This was the only time two future presidents faced off in a congressional race.)

But while Henry may have engineered the first gerrymander, the term itself did not appear until 1812, when a Boston newspaper cartoon mocked the salamander-shaped district drawn by the political allies of Governor Elbridge Gerry. The paper called the district the “Gerry-mander,” and the name stuck.

The Apportionment Act of 1842 mandated that U.S. congressional districts be geographically contiguous and have about the same population. But within those parameters, political parties have found ways to manipulate congressional district lines, which are redrawn after each decennial census.

The party in power in the state government at the time of redistricting typically redraws the congressional districts to favor the election of its candidates. Moreover, state legislative districts are subject to gerrymandering, too, thereby helping to ensure that the party in power stays in power statewide.

In recent years, redistricting has featured battles between racial minorities and white voting blocs, and between Democratic-leaning city dwellers and Republican-leaning suburbanites. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the Department of Justice (DOJ) the power to break up districts that disenfranchised racial minorities, and there are several current lawsuits over perceived violations along these lines.

Redistricting out of control

Historically, both major parties have engaged in gerrymandering. Even former President Barack Obama was accused of fostering a gerrymander, when, while serving in the Illinois legislature, he helped spearhead a redistricting process that absorbed wealthy, white Gold Coast voters into his predominantly poor African-American district, transforming the political climate of Chicago and greatly contributing to his rise in Illinois politics.

But the most prominent recent cases have involved Republican-drawn maps that put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage (Obama, in fact, is now organizing an effort to fight GOP-led gerrymandering as his first post-presidential project). Indeed, the 21st century has seen some of the most egregious cases of gerrymandering in the nation’s history. Nowhere was this more evident than in Texas, whose 20.6 percent population growth between the 2000 and 2010 censuses resulted in a gain of four congressional districts.

The Republican-controlled Texas legislature, guided by Governor Rick Perry, created a series of district maps that spawned a dozen lawsuits. Latino political action groups contended that the new districts favored white conservatives, while conservative activists alleged the maps counted illegal immigrants as voters.

Suing for a redraw

Successful lawsuits against gerrymandering are usually brought by politicians, government agencies, or legal action committees. But citizen-powered class action lawsuits are not unheard of and sometimes get results; case in point: Wisconsin, site of one of the most notorious cases of gerrymandering following the 2010 census.

In July of 2015, a bipartisan group of voters filed a lawsuit accusing Wisconsin’s 2010 Republican-led remapping of “cracking and packing” Wisconsin’s new state legislative districts. The suit points out that although Democrats cast a majority of votes in the 2012 state elections, Republicans took 60 of the state’s 99 legislative seats. (“Cracking” is the practice of weakening an area of dense party affiliation by dividing its population among several new districts to the point that they are a minority in each. “Packing” takes place when new districts are created with a partisan supermajority of likeminded voters, guaranteeing unassailable incumbencies for years.)

On November 21st, 2016, a panel of three federal judges struck down Wisconsin’s district map, and ordered the legislature to come up with a plan for an amended version, a decision cheered by citizen activists. But not every redistricting is so clearly skewed as Wisconsin’s, and the American political tradition of gerrymandering will continue to require a vigilant response.