What is a Gerrymander? The Drawing of District Boundaries

The original gerrymander, from an 1812 political cartoon. By Elkanah Tisdale.

Introduction
Gerrymandering is a term in politics that many people may hear much consternation and debate about but do not really understand everything that it entails. This article will devote some time to discussing and defining the practice and also provide resources for teachers that will assist them in helping students understand what it is all about. The term has to do with how official boundaries are set within particular voting districts. The phenomenon tends to have a negative connotation.

Used for Political Advantage
The practice of manipulating district boundaries to gain a political advantage is known as gerrymandering and the resulting district created from this practice is known as a gerrymander. It is sometimes used to assist individuals from particular political, ethnic, racial, linguistic, or socioeconomic backgrounds to have more voting power. This can be done by bolstering the population of certain groups within specific district boundaries. But many times boundaries are altered to hinder minority groups from voting in certain districts. In this way, the practice is used to achieve desired electoral results for a certain political party. For example, some redrawn district boundaries can produce a voting population that is largely African-American, Hispanic or other racial minorities, creating what are known as “majority-minority districts.” Sometimes this practice is defended as the only way to secure any representation at all for certain minority groups. It is argued that violating local boundaries in drawing districts is preferable to denying a politically cohesive group any voice in state government. However, these practices are sometimes used to protect incumbents. Two primary tactics are used in gerrymandering by politicians. They are cracking and packing. Cracking is the practice of weakening the voting power of an opposing political party’s supporters by diluting their presence in a district. Packing is restricting the opposing political party’s voting power to one district to weaken their voting strength elsewhere.  

Etymology and History
The term gerrymander was derived from the practices of former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. Governor Gerry enacted a law in 1812 that defined new state senatorial districts. The new law pushed most of the  Federalist Party voters into a few districts. This gave the Democratic-Republicans a political advantage at the polls. The shape and outline of one of these oddly drawn districts was said to resemble a salamander. Thus political cartoonist Elkanah Tisdale depicted this phenomenon satirically in the Boston Gazette, calling it “The Gerry-mander”, a term that has been in popular usage ever sense.

Gerrymandering has been criticized and condemned as unconstitutional but continues to flourish as a political practice. Even today the majority parties in certain state legislatures continue to set district boundaries along partisan lines to their political advantage, disregarding the local boundaries. In some states, representatives from small town districts limit the representation of more densely populated urban centers (Which tend to be racially and ethnically diverse), by redrawing the districts.

Lessons Plans/Resources
Gerrymandering: One Person one vote?

Mini-lesson: Gerrymandering (HS)

Lesson Plan: Redistricting and Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering, or how drawing irregular lines can impact an election

Did you Gerrymander?

Gerrymandering and Partisan Politics in the U.S.

Mathematics and Gerrymandering

Lesson Plan: Why do lines matter? Gerrymandering and the 14th Amendment

Lesson Plan: Reapportionment and Gerrymandering


References
Investigating Gerrymandering and the Math Behind Partisan Maps

Gerrymandering: How drawing jagged lines can impact an election – Christina Greer

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering- Encyclopedia Britannica

Discussion Questions
1. Throughout your school career have you had any lessons from teachers in grades K-12 or college on this topic?
2. To what extent have you covered this topic in your own courses?
3. Do you feel that it is important to learn and teach students about this topic in a democratic society? Why or why not?
4. What resources do you find most helpful in this article? Why?
5. What are some of your overall thoughts on the topic of gerrymandering?

7 Comments

  1. Although I knew that the term gerrymandering meant to manipulate boundary-lines for political gain, I never knew where the term actually came from – very interesting history factoid to learn. Gerrymandering is something that we as citizens should be aware of happening in our country because it makes reading a situation that much harder. I believe that gerrymandering is a major flaw in a system such as ours that uses the electoral college for larger votes, as the results can be manipulated in a way that skews the data intentionally, drastically, and favorably in one direction.

  2. In a Poli-Sci course taught on American Institutions, a lot of discussion was had about the practice of gerrymandering. It is still legal in 21 states and political elites take advantage of this. I feel that the this form of redistricting intentionally disenfranchises specific sociodemographic groups and that the Supreme Court should review its legality.

  3. While I have heard of the term “gerrymandering,” prior to reading this article, I had a very limited understanding of what this term meant. It is saddening that this practice is still prominently used by both parties to manipulate boundaries for political advantage. While this action is unfortunately not the worst thing parties are doing to manipulate the system, I do believe it needs to be addressed so there are no or limited unfair advantages.

  4. I have never heard of gerrymandering and this article really helped me understand it. I think it is important for everyone to know what this term means to get a good idea of how we use it as a country. My history classes in high school never talked about gerrymandering and I think it is a very important thing to discuss with students. Now that I know what this means I now have a better understanding of the government and how it works.

  5. I have heard the term gerrymandering many times in my history classes, but have never truly understood what it meant until now. This article really explained to me what it is and how it is used. I don’t think that very many people know what this term means. But, its obviously important to know. I think this article explained the term in an easy way for everyone to understand.

  6. Like most of the previous commentators, I was never taught about gerrymandering in my K-12 schooling or in my history and political science classes in college. I learned about the practice through my own research and hearing it discussed around election time. It is something that I don’t think most people know or hear about despite everyone involved being affected by it. It is a practice used to intently hinder and sway in a certain direction what it supposed to be a fair election process. I think this article does its job of introducing the topic in an easily understandable way in order to bring the topic to light for those who may have never heard of the issue and can allow them to further their research into the subject.

  7. While I have never heard of Gerrymandering, I do think it should be addressed in high school. I think it’s important for students to understand a lot more about voting rights though. In school, we were never taught much about the current government or different policies and Gerrymandering was one of them. As a teacher, I would address this term in a “mini lesson” similar to the examples above. While it is important, spending a week on it would be excessive. Today, we have a problem of young people not voting when they are 18 and I think if they were more educated then that might change.

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