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?

9 Comments

  1. During my school career K-12, I have never once heard of Gerrymander. This is my first time hearing about it and the fact that it has to do with the government and such tells me it’s pretty important and I’m disappointed in my school district for not teaching it to me ever before. I have learned quite a bit from this article and now I know how the districts are set up.

  2. I have also never heard of Gerrymander. I feel like it is extremely important to know and to teach about because it is specific to voting. I think that students should be introduced to this concept in middle school, specifically 8th grade. Then, I think that it should be reviewed every year through out high school. I really enjoyed learning about how our districts are set up and I feel more knowledgeable about our government as a whole.

  3. I am very aware of this phrase and am also well aware of its purpose and use. The idea that districts can be manipulated to give one party an edge over another is sad but both sides have played the game. Not saying its right, however I am acknowledging that some in positions of power will always strive to keep hold of that power. Unfortunately, several state supreme courts have concluded that there is no method for fairly drawing these boundaries and must be done by legislators every so often. Due to the strange shapes of our states/counties we are unable to draw concentric boundaries due to the fact that some areas will be left short and thusly open states to legal challenges. Looks like we’re stuck with this system and that means folks have to compromise.

  4. I have heard of gerrymandering before, but I was not fully clear on its definition until now. It is unfortunate that this practice continues to be abused by both parties, despite it being seen by many as unconstitutional. It would likely be difficult to enforce a law that condemns gerrymandering, since it is so commonly used by our representatives as a tool to gain a political advantage over the other party. While gerrymandering isn’t the most egregious political practice being used today, something should still be done to stop it from being abused by our representatives. In a perfect world, both political parties would be on equal ground, without any unfair advantages.

  5. I at first heard of gerrymandering in one of my history classes at Nku. I also do feel like it is a very important subject and that it should be taught in high school or middle school. With the teaching of this in high school or middle school this could help to get a better turn out because students will understand how the districts work and how it affects the voting. This subject is a whole really help to shed some light on how the government works and how voting works as well.

  6. I always love learning about new concepts that relate to an important concept in history. I have heard of the term gerrymandering but never learned what it actually meant. Now that i know i think that the subject is very important and should be taught at an earlier level. The lesson plans attached would provide a valuable tool to help younger students learn about this modern problem.

  7. I first heard about gerrymandering on TV. I was always taught to not believe everything you hear, so I immediately dismissed it until I went back to research it later. A lot of people don’t even know that this practice exists. To me this is a reminder that we are not a straight democracy, and that our individual votes and choices don’t always matter or make quite the impact that we are taught to believe. It’s hard to believe that a country based on freedom does so much to politically limit the people’s actual power.

  8. I actually never heard of Gerrymander I read this article. It was so interesting reading this article because it gave me more of a perspective on voting. I now see distracts where I use to see states. I feel as if more young people need to understand this and voting to be educated on why people talk about different distracts when it comes to presidential elections.

  9. During my K-12 I had covered this topic, though I understood it to be nothing more than a political term. There was no detailed explanation of the concept. I didn’t realize how much of a problem this could cause.

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