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What is gerrymandering and why does it matter?

  1. What does gerrymandering mean?
  2. How does gerrymandering work?
  3. Why is gerrymandering important?
  4. Why is Gerrymandering bad?
  5. How do we fix gerrymandering?

Anyone listening to news broadcasts or political podcasts during the last few years has heard the term “gerrymandering” a lot.

But what does “gerrymandering” mean?

The simplest definition of “gerrymandering” is the drawing of boundaries around electoral districts to give one political party an advantage over the other. Another way to define it is as the cherry-picking–or careful selection–of voters who reliably vote for one party or another. Republicans endeavor to create voting districts in which voters are sympathetic to Republican positions, while Democrat politicians do the same with Democratic voters. Voting boundaries can also be drawn to break up neighborhoods or blocks of people that might share ethnic or other characteristics to dilute their voting power.

Gerrymandering
A small example of how drawing different voting boundaries can change a vote outcome

The result is often geographic voting areas that have unpredictable and (seemingly) randomly placed boundaries.

The term “gerrymandering” comes from the name of a nineteenth-century politician, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. In 1812 he and his administration were responsible for enacting a law that defined new senatorial districts in Massachusetts. One of the newly created districts (drawn to give more power to Gerry’s party, the Democratic-Republicans) was said to resemble an animal or lizard. A satirical political cartoonist of the time mocked the boundaries of the new district that made it look like a salamander, and labeled it the “Gerry-mander.”

How does gerrymandering work?

Gerrymandering is a highly effective political tool that allows political parties and candidates that are in power to rig elections so that they stay in power. When deciding which voters get to vote in which districts, people who gerrymander can engage in two tactics that are known as “cracking” and “packing.”

In “cracking,” lines are drawn to break up the power of groups of people who would likely vote one way or another. For instance, if politicians see that there is a large group of people with similar political viewpoints or class similarities in one area, they might draw borders through that area to break up such groups. Republicans might want to break up a very Democratic-voting area so they would have fewer votes in more districts. Then Republicans would have a better chance of winning in those districts where the Democratic vote would be smaller.

In “packing,” lines are drawn to minimize the number of elections that certain groups can win by putting all of their alike voters into one district. For example, Democrats might conspire to draw a district that includes all the Republican voters in a larger area, meaning Republicans would win that district overwhelmingly but would have less voting power in surrounding districts.

Why is gerrymandering such an important issue?

Gerrymandering is a tool used to manipulate elections, it causes several bad outcomes. Gerrymandering takes away the rights of citizens to easily organize themselves along neighborhood lines or within logical geographical areas. It can make it difficult to know even the basics of the voting process, like which district you are in and for which government representatives you may vote.

Elections are viewed as the primary means of change in a democracy, and if one party or politician uses their power to unfairly influence future elections and those possibilities for change, voters will become convinced over time that their vote no longer matters.

Gerrymandering rewards extremism, by allowing the individuals who are willing to manipulate the voting process to consolidate their power. Without facing a viable political opponent, an individual can develop ever more extreme views to appeal to their voters in their hand-picked districts. Gerrymandering weakens both the power of every individual’s vote and democracy as a whole.

Why is Gerrymandering bad?

There are many negative consequences associated with gerrymandering; for one, it can lead to extreme partisanship and gridlock within government, as politicians are less likely to work together when they know they have safe seats. In addition, gerrymandering undermines democracy by making elections less competitive and voters’ voices less heard. In short, gerrymandering is bad because it prevents people from participating effectively in politics and weakens our democratic system as a whole.

How do we fix gerrymandering?

One of the most common ways to fix gerrymandering is to create independent nonpartisan committees to draw district lines. This takes the power away from politicians who may be tempted to redraw districts in a way that benefits their party. Another solution is to use a computer program to draw districts based on objective criteria, such as population density. This can help to create districts that are more balanced and representative of the overall electorate. Finally, some states have implemented “fair share” plans, which require both parties to be equally represented in each district. While there is no perfect solution to gerrymandering, these methods can help to create fairer and more representative districts.