Political Gerrymandering Explained

Political Law

What is political gerrymandering?

Simply put, it's a sly method that state officials may use to draw district lines so they can influence election results.

State legislators control the process of allocating people into voting districts ("districting"). When you look at the map of the Congressional districts in a state, you will see the results of their efforts. Districting can influence the outcomes of elections because determining which voters are in which districts can alter the district majorities. For example, a political party that has 45% of public favor and 3 districts by which to allocate people could ensure that 2 districts go in its favor. It could put a "supermajority" of the other party's voters in one of the districts. 

Political Gerrymandering

When the party in control of the map-drawing process draws the lines to its own advantage to the detriment of the disfavored party, it engages in political gerrymandering. Sometimes mapmakers get so specific with carving that the district shapes end up looking pretty bizarre. In the instance that gave the "gerrymander" its name, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry was said to have created an election district that looked like a salamander.

How is it different from racial gerrymandering?

Racial gerrymandering is districting to the disadvantage of race (instead of partisanship). Where political gerrymandering is acceptable in our society (to an extent), racial gerrymandering to any degree is unacceptable. That's because our Constitution bans discrimination on the basis of race. We have years of struggle to thank for that.

Because racial gerrymandering is never acceptable, not to any degree, the courts can more determinately spot it and extinguish it. Of course, discovering intent to discriminate is not trivial, but it's easier than what must be done to decide if political gerrymandering is ok - which is to identify it and then to decide how much of it will be tolerated. As we reported here, articulating how much political gerrymandering will be tolerated is a question that has stumped the Supreme Court for years.

What is neutral districting?

If gerrymandering is a biased method of line-drawing, what is a neutral method? How would a completely neutral party draw district lines to be as fair as possible? Courts' evaluations of districting have led to the discovery of several principles: compactness, contiguity and near-equal population allocation. Compactness and contiguity both relate to the physical spaces drawn. A district should be compact (not spread out) and contiguous (the territory must share all the same border). If you think of the salamander example (see our Gill v. Whitford graphic for the image), the district is contiguous but not quite compact. The third principle, near-equal population, just means that the mapmakers must not put 200 people in one district and 20,000 in another; try to be relatively equal.

Why is political gerrymandering acceptable?

It all started because Square 1 - the natural state in need of districting - was not suited for districting perfection. Natural patterns of settlement do not give way to perfectly fair Platonic squares of districting. Justice Scalia pointed this out in the Vieth v. Jubelirer majority opinion:

"Consider, for example, a legislature that draws district lines with no objectives in mind except compactness and respect for the lines of political subdivisions. Under that system, political groups that tend to cluster (as is the case with Democratic voters in cities) would be systematically affected by what might be called a 'natural' packing effect."

And once we admit that a planning process must happen, we can expect a party to take advantage. Justice Stevens dissented in Vieth with a comment to that effect: "[I]t is neither realistic nor fair to expect [elected officials] wholly to ignore the political consequences of their decisions."

Moreover, once one party has had its biased chance at making an allocation, the next party isn't working with a blank slate. It might seem fair, in this light, that when another party comes to power, it could sway the lines back. To some extent, each party can see gerrymandering as only fair to even things out.

The consensus, in the end? "Political factors are common and permissible elements of the art of governing a democratic society." Justice Stevens, Vieth Dissent.

Will the Supreme Court decide how far is too far?

Several cases this Supreme Court term are urging the Court to decide how far is too far when it comes to political gerrymandering (Gill v. Whitford, Benisek v. Lamone, and a couple more that may be granted). Everyone agrees that a party cannot gerrymander itself into a complete entrenchment of power for the rest of time. But can it gerrymander itself into a 70% entrenchment for 10 years? How can we even judge how much of the entrenchment resulted from gerrymandering, when it's too hard to figure out exactly who votes (compared to who would have voted) for the various parties in each given election? See our report on Benisek v. Lamone for a comparison of the various attempts at finding a standard (drawing the line) that gerrymandering challengers have brought to the Supreme Court. And, of course, stay tuned for the decisions.