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What is Gerrymandering?

8169526274_7d15948603_k NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr CC

In Brief

Gerrymandering refers to the intentional manipulation of district boundaries to create predictable, “safe districts” for political gain. A component of U.S. politics since as early as 1788, gerrymandering is widely considered a negative element of the political system as it creates political advantage for incumbent representatives and parities by limits election competitiveness. This brief describes gerrymandering and its different forms, and reviews states’ efforts to combat it. 

Overview: District Boundaries, Equal Representation, and Gerrymandering

Elected representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, and most municipalities represent voters within a specified district boundary. For voters to have equal legislative representation through their elected representatives, districts must have approximately equally sized populations. This concept is commonly summarized as the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” standard articulated in a series of rulings in the 1960s.

However, district populations grow and shrink unevenly over time, meaning, periodically (once per decade), district boundaries must be redrawn, or redistricted, to restore roughly equal legislative representation. In 37 states, elected state legislators have control over redistricting, including the areas they each represent. They can determine the populations that constitute their districts, using various tactics to include populations most likely to support them in re-election and excluding those least likely to support them. When legislators design voting boundaries to meet their political aims rather than to restore equal representation, it is known as gerrymandering,

Gerrymandering Aims and Tactics

Gerrymandering refers to any deliberate manipulation of electoral district borders. Two common types of gerrymandering in modern U.S. politics are racial and partisan gerrymandering.

Racial gerrymandering occurs when legislators draw districts to reduce the impact of racial minority voters. This violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Supreme Court has consistently declared specific instances unconstitutional. However, it is legal for legislators to enhance racial minorities’ collective voting influence by concentrating minority voters within a voting district, which is called affirmative racial gerrymandering.

Partisan gerrymandering aims to minimize the impact of opposition voters for a specific candidate or issue. Legislators may “crack” up opposition voters so their votes will have less impact on any one district. Legislators may also “pack” one district with opposition voters so their votes play a less significant role in remaining districts. These tactics often lead to the odd shapes associated with gerrymandered districts as niche, but often geographically dispersed, areas need to be connected.

The Supreme Court has heard many cases regarding partisan gerrymandering but has never established a clear standard for adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims. Without such a standard, no case has been overturned and partisan gerrymandering remains a common, legal practice.

How Do States Combat Gerrymandering?

Analysts attribute gerrymandering to the control incumbent elected officials have over the redistricting process. Currently, 37 state legislatures have control over drawing their own districts and 42 state legislatures have control over drawing House districts. In an effort to limit gerrymandering, some states have reduced legislative control by establishing separate commissions to advise or control the redistricting process:

  • Advisory commissions consist of non-legislators, usually appointed by legislators. The commission provides input, but legislators retain redistricting power and are not bound by the input.
  • Backup commissions are also appointed by legislators, and are asked to provide input iflegislatures cannot pass a plan by a specified deadline.
  • Politician commissions consist of non-elected officials.
  • Independent commissions are comprised of non-legislators and non-public officials who are often prohibited from running for public office within a specific period of time after they serve on the independent redistricting commission. Independent commissions are generally considered the gold standard against gerrymandering.

Summary

  • Gerrymandering is the intentional manipulation of district boundaries to concentrate specific voting populations for political gain.
  • “Cracking” and “packing” are common gerrymandering tactics used to dilute the representation of likely oppositional voters.
  • Typically, state legislators are responsible for re-drawing district boundaries and do so to benefit their party’s or their own political outcomes.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has not heard partisan gerrymandering cases, and the practice is both common and legal.
  • Some states have removed elected officials from the redistricting process to prevent gerrymandering.

Works Cited[+ Expand]

Barasch, Emily. The Atlantic. “The Twisted History of Gerrymandering in American Politics.” September 19, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/the-twisted-history-of-gerrymandering-in-american-politics/262369/#slide1

Beckett, Lois. ProPublica. “Is Partisan Gerrymandering Unconstitutional?” November 7, 2011. http://www.propublica.org/article/is-partisan-gerrymandering-unconstitutional

Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “7 Things to Know About Redistricting.” October 28, 2013. https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/7-things-know-about-redistricting

Crocker, Royce. Congressional Research Service. “Congressional Redistricting: An Overview.” November 21, 2012. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42831.pdf

The Harris Poll. “Americans Across Party Lines Oppose Common Gerrymandering Practices.” November 7, 2013. http://www.theharrispoll.com/politics/Americans_Across_Party_Lines_Oppose_Common_Gerrymandering_Practices.html

Levitt, Justin. Loyola Law School Los Angeles. “Litigation in the 2010 Cycle” http://redistricting.lls.edu/what.php

Levitt, Justin. Loyola Law School Los Angeles. “What is Redistricting?” http://redistricting.lls.edu/what.php

Levitt, Justin. Loyola Law School Los Angeles. “Where are the Lines Drawn?” http://redistricting.lls.edu/where.php#equalpop

Levitt, Justin. Loyola Law School Los Angeles. “Who Draws the Lines?” http://redistricting.lls.edu/who-state.php

Levitt, Justin. Loyola Law School Los Angeles. “Why Does it Matter?” http://redistricting.lls.edu/why.php

Pierce, Olga et al. ProPublica. “Redistricting, a Devil’s Dictionary.” November 2, 2011. http://www.propublica.org/article/redistricting-a-devils-dictionary

Redistricting CA. “What is Redistricting?” http://www.redistrictingca.org/what-is-redistricting/

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