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In America, voters don't pick their politicians. Politicians pick their voters1
In this explanation, you will be introduced to a creature known as the "Gerrymander." The beast (pictured below), is a mainstay of electoral geography, the branch of political geography that looks at how voting districts are drawn and redrawn.
The Gerrymander is quite common; you may live in an area that has been gerrymandered. The word is a portmanteau of Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts governor in 1812, and "salamander," a mythical, fire-breathing creature. The Democratic-Republican party at the time created a congressional district around Boston said to be in the shape of a salamander, and the evocative name stuck. Is gerrymandering ethical? Read on to learn about the finer points of "cracking" and "packing," and you will find out!
First, let's look at the original "Gerry-Mander":
The 1812 cartoon artist was critical, as many were at the time, of the tortuous boundaries of the new Massachusetts congressional district that Governor Gerry signed into law. The intent was to benefit the Democratic-Republican party by creating districts that the party could win because they linked areas with a majority of voters for that party, and it worked.
However, the redrawing of congressional district boundaries itself is not only legal but required and necessary in a representative democracy such as the US because geographically-define districts are apportioned by population and populations change over time.
A principal function of the US Decennial Census is to count people for the purpose of redrawing congressional district lines so that votes continue to be proportional.
Redistricting: The congressionally-delegated process of redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts based on US Census data to reflect changing population geography.
Gerrymandering: The redrawing of US congressional district boundary lines to create districts that favor a certain political party at the expense of the other (in modern times, Republicans and Democrats).
Take a look at the 4th Congressional District in Illinois: a classic gerrymandered shape. The odd shape, however, was a result of a bipartisan, court-ordered agreement to create a Hispanic district around Chicago, so it combined an area of Puerto Rican population (the north side) with a majority Mexican American area (the south side).
To understand how a shape like Illinois' 4th District happened, let's start at the beginning. Literally, the beginning: Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.
Representatives ... shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective Numbers ... The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative (Art. 1, Sect. 2, Constitution of the United States)
Reapportionment of Representatives (not US Senators, as these are set at two/state) for the 435-member US Congress is fixed by a formula whereby all states have at least one representative. The six states with the smallest populations have just one, whereas other states each have between two and 52. Any state can gain or lose representatives after new Census data become available, but the total number of 435 cannot change. After the 2020 Census, Texas gained two seats and four other states gained a seat each (because those states grew in population), while California, for the first time, lost a seat, as did six other states because their populations shrank.
Regardless of whether reapportionment of seats affects a state, redistricting always does. Each state is required by Federal law to redraw its district lines based on new Census data. State legislatures also redraw districts for their own state legislator seats.
The first Census was in 1790 and there has been one every ten years since. District lines changed infrequently before the 1960s, but after the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, more attention was paid to the ways that the two main US political parties used Census data to draw lines that either gave an advantage to their own party's candidates or at least did not disadvantage them.
As you will see below, there are ways to redraw districts that spread out the opposing party's voters so that they don't form a majority anywhere, or cram the opposing party's voters into a single district; either way, the goal is to win as many districts as you can in a given state, at least until the next Census comes along. This can end up being highly unethical and even illegal.
In 36 states, Federal and state redistricting is officially carried out by the legislatures, while in the rest, there are commissions intended to be non-partisan that do it. All US states completed their redistricting plans before the 2022 Midterm elections, though several were challenged in courts because of charges of discriminatory or otherwise unfair gerrymandering.
Three kinds of gerrymandering take place, and all are subject to legal challenges at the state and federal levels:
When major parties in power in a given state find it convenient or necessary, they may agree to gerrymander districts as a way of power-sharing. This may also be mandated by a court decision. Illinois' 4th District (2013-2023), for example, was mandated by a Federal court to be redrawn as a majority-minority district. (After 2023, it will take another, completely different, shape.)
US history is filled with examples of voter disenfranchisement. The VRA of 1965 is cited by the NAACP and ACLU who charge that racial disenfranchisement, particularly of Hispanic and Black voters, is ongoing. Minority voters may be packed into a single district, removing their influence elsewhere, or cracked, which means split up among various districts, thereby diluting their influence (this assumes that minority voters often vote for the same party).
Racial gerrymandering is a type of partisan gerrymandering.
The AP Human Geography exam may ask you to draw conclusions from before-and-after gerrymandering maps that relate to potential racial and other discrimination.
This is gerrymandering that one party or wing of a party finds unfair, based on perceptions of voting blocs having been packed or cracked. It may involve any constituency: for example, suburban, white voters who tend to vote Republican may be cracked across various districts to dilute their influence; this is not "racial gerrymandering" with intent to disenfranchise a minority, but if the gerrymandering was partisan, then it might be deemed illegal in court.
Gerrymandering is a specific type of redistricting that produces congressional districts with odd shapes. The shapes are often what give away the intent to "pack" or "crack" voters to place a party at an advantage. The odd shape is a result of connecting different widely-spaced concentrations of a certain group in a single geographic area.
Redistricting is always required by law but the results may be challenged in court. Gerrymandering, where it is not required by law (as in bipartisan cases), is often determined by courts to be illegal.
Often, "redistricting" and "gerrymandering" are two terms for the same event, depending on which side of the aisle you are on.
Here's how it works: a commission appointed by a state legislature, new Census data in hand, is charged with redrawing district lines. The state has rules in place intended to prevent partisan and racial gerrymandering: these might include requirements to preserve neutrality between parties, submit multiple proposals, rules to avoid certain district shapes, and boundaries that have to follow local political subdivision boundaries (of townships, counties, etc.), in addition to Federal law that stipulates that districts cannot be broken into parts and must have equal populations (of all people, not voting age people or citizens.)
Redistricting is known as redistribution in other countries. Representative democracies that apportion legislature seats based on population go through this exercise regularly, just like the US, and countries from Greece to Malaysia and Canada to Chile have had issues with gerrymandering. Some have largely solved the problem by the establishment of independent, non-partisan commissions.
In the above fictional but highly realistic scenario, the commission submits several maps to the state legislature, which votes to accept one of them. Up to this point, we are talking about redistricting. But then, the minority party cries "gerrymandering!" claiming its voters have been cracked across several districts and will lose majorities and thus seats. The governor, who is a member of the minority party in this example, vetoes the redistricting plan, but then the legislature overturns her veto. It goes to the state's supreme court, which rules in favor of the original plan, declaring that it was not gerrymandered after all.
Let's look at a case of widely-acknowledged partisan gerrymandering:
Florida's racially and ethnically diverse population is nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, making it a "battleground" or "swing" state in national presidential elections. The situation with congressional districts is also fraught. We have pictured two maps representing the before (2014) and after (2017) of a Florida Supreme Court case where it was charged that the 5th District, after the 2010 Census, was gerrymandered. But as is not unusual in electoral politics, there were a couple of twists.
Historically, Florida's 5th district (formerly numbered as its 3rd) was a polygon around Orlando that was majority white and was consistently won by Republican candidates. A redrawn district emerged in 2013, and Democrats sued, alleging that it was gerrymandered to pack Black voters into a single district. The Florida Supreme Court required a new district map, which moved the 5th district to a completely different location, connecting Jacksonville and Tallahassee. After 2017, it was a majority-minority district (AKA minority-majority district) where a minority, in this case, Black, held a comfortable population majority, so could be guaranteed a seat.
The catch? The 2013 gerrymandered district was defended by part of the Democratic Party that wished to guarantee its Black Democrat candidates won (even if Black voters were packed there), so the 2013-2017 situation pitted Democrats against Democrats. The compromise reached was seen as a less gerrymandered, more equitable solution that did not diminish the impact of Black voters in Florida.
The twist? After the 2020 Census, Ron DeSantis, Republic governor of Florida, took an active role in a new round of redistricting, and the resulting map erases Democrat gains (and the 5th District lines before 2020), establishing new districts that appear to crack minority voters and Democrats across the entire north of the state.
Redistricting is the redrawing of congressional district boundary lines; gerrymandering is the redrawing of congressional boundary lines in a way perceived to be unfair to a certain party by intentionally reducing its power. Gerrymandered districts often have odd shapes.
Redistricting is required by Federal law; gerrymandering may sometimes be mandated, but is often illegal as the intent is to disenfranchise voters.
Redistricting is called gerrymandering in cases where it appears that the intent is to disenfranchise voters.
Reapportionment is the process whereby congressional seats are added or taken away from states based on population changes made known after a Census; a state may or may not be subject to this. Redistricting is the process of redrawing district boundaries in a state, also based on Census data, and required so that every district has an equal number of voters.
Gerrymandering means drawing district boundaries in such a way that voters are disenfranchised, either by "packing" them all into a single district, "cracking" them across various, or both. The intent of the party engaging in gerrymandering is to gain congressional seats while the other party loses seats.
(True or False) Gerrymandering can be legal
True. Oddly-shaped districts may have been gerrymandered on purpose due to a court order to create a majority-minority district.
The following refers to a case whereby a state loses a congressional seat.
_______ is where voting groups are spread across various districts; _____ is where they are crammed into a single district
(True or False) Only one major US party engages in gerrymandering
False. Both parties do it.
What establishes the basis for reapportionment and redistricting?
What drew attention to racial discrimination in redistricting?
Voting Rights Act of 1965
What are the three types of gerrymandering?
Bipartisan, partisan, and racial
(True or False) Congressional districts are based on the number of voting-age citizens in an area
False: they are based on total population.
Put these events in order of time from first to last: A-Redistricting ordered; B-Reapportionment; C-Census; D-Commission creates new district lines; E-District lines are approved by legislature
C, B, A, D, E
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