Gerrymandering is the political tactic of redrawing electoral districts in order to unfairly favor one party or group of people over others.
It has the effect of disenfranchising certain sections of the population and undermining democracy. It can lead to parliaments that clearly do not represent the people and even sustain the power of a minority group within an ostensibly democratic society.
The term “gerrymandering” comes from Governor Elbridge Gerry in Massachusetts who, in 1810, redistricted the state in order to try to disenfranchise his opponents.
A newspaper editor remarked that one of the districts looked like a salamander. So, he created a portmantau of Gerry’s name with the word “salamander”, leading to the term “gerrymander.”
Since the 1990s, gerrymandering has become increasingly common in the USA, paralleling the increasing partisanship of American politics. However, it also occurs in other areas around the world, such as Singapore.
Examples of Types of Gerrymandering
- Packing: Packing involves moving people into a district in order to put them on the electoral rolls. This occurs regularly in Australian party politics, where the Labor and Liberal parties both engage in a practice called branch stacking in order to ensure a faction’s preferred candidate wins preselection within each party. In the Australian context, this is used to control internal politics and policy directions of each party. In the Liberal party, it’s often done to secure Christian conservative values; in the Labor party, it’s often done to prevent the socialist faction from controlling the party’s policy direction.
- Cracking: Cracking occurs when districts are re-drawn in a way that ‘cracks’ the original district up. It often leads to strange-looking districts designed to ensure certain neighborhoods that have a left- or right-leaning electors are included or excluded to guarantee the preferred result of the people drawing the districts.
- Kidnapping: While not literally kidnapping, this strategy involves re-drawing districts so that the incumbent politician is suddenly representing a completely different geographical region than the region they were elected to represent. The intention is to make their re-election less likely because they’re suddenly representing people whose political leanings differ from those of their original electors.
- Hijacking: Like kidnapping, this strategy involves moving district boundaries around to displace or disorient the current elector. But in hijacking, they often combine two districts that tend to elect the same party. The result is that two elected politicians of the same party are suddenly running against each other in the next election. It has the effect of diluting that party’s vote and – at the very least – removing one incumbent member of the party from the parliament.
- Phantom districting: This happens when a district is created where the are no or very few voters. It is usually done to benefit the party involved in re-drawing the electoral lines by, for example, getting someone from their party elected to get an equal vote in the parliament even though they don’t represent many people at all.
- Racial gerrymandering: A very common strategy, this involves diluting the electoral power of minority groups by either splitting their neighborhoods into several districts or placing them all in one district. If the population are split into several districts, they may not have enough combined power to effect the vote in any one district. If they’re all placed in one district, their power is concentrated in order that they only get to elect one politician to represent their values. The key to determining whether racial gerrymandering is occurring is to prove that the electoral lines were drawn with the goal of advantaging or disadvantaging a particular racial or ethnic group.
- Partisan gerrymandering: Partisan gerrymandering summarizes most types of gerrymandering. It simply refers to splitting districts in order to benefit one political party over the other.
- Prison gerrymandering: This involves changing imprisoned people’s registered address to the address of a prison. This ensures people who are imprisoned will vote not in their community’s district, but in the district in which the prison is located. It would be considered gerrymandering if the intention is to skew results in a district.
- Incumbent protection: This occurs when an incumbent politician, who is often directly involved in drawing the districts, will draw their district’s boundaries in order to ensure they will get re-elected. The incumbent can use their power to choose who which neighborhoods will be in his districts and which ones wouldn’t.
- Non-compact districting: Districts should ideally be compact, meaning all members in the district should be reasonably close to one another. Non-compact districting, however, involves making strangely-shaped districts that are difficult to travel across and often mean the one politician represents groups of people who are long ways away from each other and otherwise not realistically part of the same community.
Real-Life Examples of Gerrymandering
- Gerrymandering in Texas: Texas is one of the most gerrymandered places in the world. When electoral districts were redrawn in 2021, Republican representatives intentionally drew uncompetitive seats in order to guarantee a Republican majority. Nearly every new seat was uncompetitive. Of the 219 districts (across the US house, TX Senate, and TX house), only 7 (3%) were decided by a margin of less than 10%. In effect, the legislature drew districts in a way that denied the voice of the people and ensured Republicans would maintain their stranglehold over the lone star state.
- Gerrymandering in Florida: Florida’s recent redistricting for its US House seats clearly supported the Republican party, with (among other strategies) the splitting of a district with black plurality into three separate districts. Princeton University’s gerrymandering project gives the redistricting an F grade, demonstrating that the new lines are designed to give Republicans the edge in 20 out of 28 districts. It’s worth noting that the Florida electorate voted heavily Republican (58%).
- Gerrymandering in New York: New York’s state legislature gets an overall C grade from the Princeton University gerrymandering project, but it gets an F grade on the competitiveness metric. Only two of the 26 districts are considered competitive and only four are considered Republican-leaning. This leaves 20 districts Democratic-leaning and Democratic safe.
- Ohio’s Snake by the Lake: Ohio’s infamous 9th district has been labeled the ‘snake by the lake’ because it’s so long and skinny that it looks like a snake. It spans five counties and is designed to pack as many Democrat-leaning cities by Lake Eerie into one district as possible. The has the effect of minimizing the number of Democrat voters in neighboring districts, increasing the chances of more Republicans getting voted across the state.
- Gerrymandering in Singapore: Singapore is supposedly a democracy, but throughout its history since independence from the British, only one party has held power. This isn’t because there aren’t elections. In fact, all votes are legitimately counted in elections. However, the ruliing party has successfully drawn districts so as to disadvantage their competitors, who tend to be pro-worker parties in the heaviliy capitalistic cosmopolitan city-state. The Singapore government also has a stranglehold over the press, having buillied free newspapers such as The Online Citizen into shutting their doors in the city-state.
Solutions to Gerrymandering
1. Creating a Non-Partisan Redistricting Commission
The most obvious solution to gerrymandering is to take power for drawing electoral boundaries out of the hands of politicians.
However, this solution is contested because many politicians argue that this will simply move election rigging into the bureaucratic deep state.
In other words, you’re better off having elected representatives to draw the districts in daylight than bureaucrats doing it behind closed doors.
Of course, if the so-called representatives redraw the districts in ways that benefit them, then they’re no longer representative of the territory as a whole.
Nevertheless, nations like Canada and Australia employ non-partisan commissions to redistrict their electoral districts, and this tends to depoliticize the process. So long as there are clear guidelines, it is possible.
2. Using Computer Programs
There are computer programs that can, with sufficient data, draw districts that are as compact as possible.
Generally, the goal is to ensure there are no elongated shapes, and districts are as close to square or circular as possible. This ensures all districts are in a reasonable geographic region and proximity.
However, people may argue that distinct communities (religious, minority, or otherwise) may actually be best served if they can be all placed in the same district where they can elect someone who best represents their distinct community’s values.
Computer programs may also have implicit biases baked into their programming.
Gerrymandering occurs across the political spectrum and is not representative of one political party, but rather of the individual character of the politicians in power. Electing people of integrity who can rise above the political fray to put in place social institutions and precedents designed to ensure fairness is perhaps the ultimate solution. Unfortunately, politics tends to attract people whose desire for power outweighs their desire for achieving the common good.
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McGhee, E. (2020). Partisan gerrymandering and political science. Annual Review of Political Science, 23, 171-185. doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-060118-045351
Stephanopoulos, N. O., & McGhee, E. M. (2015). Partisan gerrymandering and the efficiency gap. The University of Chicago Law Review, 831-900. doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43410706
Stephanopoulos, N. O. (2017). The causes and consequences of gerrymandering. Wm. & Mary L. Rev., 59, 2115.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.