Gerrymander in the United States

Gerrymander and the United States Constitution

Congressional district maps in several States show one and sometimes several districts of very odd shapes. Some look like the letters S or Y, some bear a resemblance to a dumbbell or a squiggly piece of spaghetti, and some defy description. Those districts have usually been gerrymandered. That is, they have been drawn to the advantage of the political party that controls the State’s legislature.

Gerrymandering is widespread today–and not just at the congressional district level. Districts for the election of State legislators are regularly drawn for partisan advantage. In fact, gerrymandering can be found in most places where lines are drawn for the election of public officeholders–in cities, counties, school districts, and elsewhere.

Most often gerrymandering takes one of two forms. The lines are drawn either:

  • to concentrate the opposition’s voters in one or a few districts, thus leaving the other districts comfortably safe for the dominant party; or
  • to spread the opposition as thinly as possible among several districts, limiting the opposition’s ability to win anywhere in the region. Gerrymandering’s main goal is to create as many “safe” districts as possible–districts almost certain to be won by the party in control of the line-drawing process.

And the computer-driven mapmaking techniques of today make the practice more effective than ever in its storied past.

For decades, gerrymandering produced congressional districts that differed widely in the number of people they included. State legislatures were responsible for this situation. A number of them regularly drew district lines on a partisan basis–with the Republicans gouging the Democrats in those States where the GOP controls the legislature, and the Democrats doing the same thing to the Republicans where they hold sway. In fact, that circumstance exists in several States today. Historically, most States were carved up on a rural versus urban as well as a partisan basis– because, through much of history, the typical State legislature was dominated by the less-populated (and over-represented) rural areas of the State. The pattern of rural over-representation in the State legislatures has now all but disappeared as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s several “one-person, one-vote” decisions of the 1960s and 1970s. In the leading case, Reynolds v. Sims, 1964, the Court held that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause commands that the seats in both houses of a State’s legislature must be apportioned on the basis of population equality.

The original Gerrymander Gerrymandering takes its name from Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who in 1812 drew the State’s legislative districts to favor the Democratic-Republicans. It is said that the painter Gilbert Stuart added a head, wings, and claws on a district map hanging over the desk of a Federalist newspaper editor. “That,” he said, “will do for a salamander.” “Better say Gerrymander,” growled the editor.

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, gerrymander is a political district drawn to advantage some and disadvantage others: candidates, parties, or interest groups. The name comes from a particularly spectacular partisan apportionment engineered by Elbridge Gerry in 1812. By the mid-1980s the focus of attention in racial gerry-mandering controversies had shifted from the fourteenth amendment to the voting rights act of 1965, which Congress had amended in 1982 to assist minority-group plaintiffs. See Thornburgh v. Gingles (1986).

Gerrymander in the International Business Landscape

Definition of Gerrymander in the context of U.S. international business and public trade policy: The intentional design of political boundaries of noncontiguous districts to ensure that a majority of a given political party exists within the boundary.

Wesberry v. Sanders, 1964

Suddenly, and quite dramatically, these longstanding patterns of wide population variations among House districts and of rural over-representation in the chamber came to an end in the mid- to late 1960s. These abrupt changes were the direct result of a historic decision by the Supreme Court in 1964. In Wesberry v. Sanders, the Court held that the population differences among Georgia’s congressional districts were so great as to violate the Constitution.
In reaching its landmark decision, the Supreme Court noted that Article I, Section 2 declares that representatives shall be chosen “by the People of the several States” and shall be “apportioned among the several States according to their respective Numbers.” These words, the Court held, mean that “as nearly as practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.” The Court added that “While it may not be possible Sources to draw congressional districts with mathematical precision, that is no excuse for ignoring our Constitution’s plain objective of making equal representation for equal numbers of people the fundamental goal of the House of Representatives. That is the high standard of justice and common sense which the Founders set for us.”
(Justice Black, Opinion of the Court)

The importance of Wesberry and the Court’s later “one person, one vote” decisions cannot be overstated. They had an extraordinary impact on the makeup of the House, on the content of public policy, and on electoral politics in general. The nation’s cities and suburbs now speak with a much larger voice in Congress than ever before. Notice, however, that it is quite possible to draw congressional (or any other) district lines in accord with the “one person, one vote” rule and, at the same time, to gerrymander them. Gerrymandering based solely on race, however, is a violation of the 15th Amendment, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 1960. So-called “majority-minority districts” were drawn in some States following the census in 1990 and again in 2000–districts crafted to include a majority of African Americans and/or Latinos and so likely to send African Americans and Latinos to Congress. The Supreme Court struck down those race-based districts in several cases–most notably, in a case from Texas, Bush v. Vera, 1996. But, most recently, the Court has held

Concept of Gerrymander

In the U.S., in the context of Voting, Campaigns and Elections Gerrymander has the following meaning: The redrawing of congressional or state legislative districts to ensure that elections favor a particular group. The term was coined when Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Constitutional Convention delegate, and governor of Massachusetts, sought to assure his party’s victory by getting the legislature to draw district boundaries carving opponents out of the prized districts. When mapped out, the resulting shape of one of the districts so resembled a salamander that a cartoonist described it as a “Gerry-mander,” and the term has stuck as a description of a deliberate attempt to gain political advantage in the redistricting process. (Source of this definition of Gerrymander : University of Texas)


Gerrymander (in Politics)

Related to political science, the following is a definition of Gerrymander in the U.S. practice of politics: Redistricting by the party in power to insure maximum votes for their candidates or make it more difficult for an opposition party to defend their seats.

The Library of Congress notes the term originated in 1811, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created a new district resembling a salamander, provoking the Boston Gazette editor to say, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”

Gerrymander Background


See Also

  • Voting
  • Campaigns
  • Elections

Gerrymander: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Gerrymander. This part provides references, in relation to Gerrymander, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Gerrymander by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Gerrymander and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Gerrymander or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Gerrymander and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Gerrymander. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Gerrymander should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Gerrymander when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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