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Gerrymandering

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Description: The practice of drawing contorted electoral district boundaries with the intent of favoring a particular party or group.


Significance: The outcome of elections can be strongly influenced by the way electoral districts are drawn. Gerrymandering can threaten the fairness and very legitimacy of representative democracy, and in most cases the Supreme Court ruled it to be unconstitutional.


Put simply, gerrymandering is the drawing of electoral districts in order to favor a political party or other group. In practice, gerrymandering results in contorted district boundaries that include “desirable” demographic groups (whose members are inclined to vote for a particular party) and exclude “undesirable” groups. Although the practice violates the intended purpose of redistricting, a case has been made for maintaining “cohesive” voting blocs within electoral districts.


Redistricting

The citizens of the United States are divided into 435 congressional districts, with each district electing one legislator to the U.S. House of Representatives. Each state is allocated a certain number of districts, based on its relative population. Every ten years the 435 congressional seats are “reapportioned” among the states, according to new population figures from the latest census. The states (primarily the state legislatures) then draw new district boundaries, both to permit an increase or decrease in their allotment of congressional seats and to ensure that all districts include approximately the same number of voters. The term “gerrymander” was coined in 1812, when the Massachusetts legislature created a contorted state senate district to favor the Democratic-Republican party. The district was said to resemble a salamander, and was dubbed a “Gerrymander” in reference to Governor Elbridge Gerry, who approved it.


Constitutional Issues

Various manifestations of gerrymandering have been found to be unconstitutional on several grounds. One concerns the equality of constituency size. A disproportionately large population might be consolidated into one district, thus diluting the political strength of its voters relative to the voters in smaller districts. (This would occasionally be done to dilute the voting strength of African Americans.) In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), the Court decreed that congressional representation must be based on the one person, one vote principle. That is, districts must be created “as nearly as practicable” with roughly equal numbers of voters. Yet simply creating districts with numerically comparable populations does not ensure that the one person, one vote principle is observed. With knowledge of certain voting indicators (such as party affiliation), a district can be drawn that is heavily weighted toward a particular political party or group. The Court found this type of gerrymander to be unconstitutional in Gomillion v. Lightfoot(1960). In this case, the Alabama legislature had altered a local election district to virtually exclude African Americans. The Court found that the district violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although many gerrymandered districts were based on attempts to disfranchise minority voters, many others simply favor a political party, irrespective of ethnic considerations. The Court found, in Davis v. Bandemer (1986), that these, too, violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Majority-Minority Districts

Although the Court consistently stood against redistricting schemes that seek to disenfranchise minorities, for a period in the 1970's and 1980's it ruled that race-based districts may be necessary to ensure the voting strength of minority groups. In fact, federal courts ordered some states to create districts containing a majority of ethnic or racial minority groups in order to uphold the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In essence, it was assumed that the voting strength of racial and ethnic groups could be increased by concentrating their votes in individual districts. The approach was bolstered by a 1982 amendment to the Act that upheld the right of African Americans and Hispanics “to elect representatives of their choice.” In the 1990's the notion of majority-minority districts came under increasing, powerful attack. Although many leaders of minority groups continued to defend such districts as a necessary mechanism for increasing minority representation, the public mood and the Court turned against the idea. A watershed was reached with the Shaw v. Reno decision in 1993. In this case, two predominantly African American districts in North Carolina were at issue. Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, the North Carolina legislature created the districts in an attempt to ensure that the state, whose population was 22 percent African American, would elect its first black congressional representatives in more than a century. Both districts did indeed elect African Americans in 1992. However, five white voters in one of the districts sued the state, claiming that they had been effectively “disenfranchised” by the reapportionment plan. The case reached the Court, whose 5-4 majority opinion instructed the lower courts to reconsider the constitutionality of the district, which had a “bizarre” shape and bore an “uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.” Although the lower courts again upheld the district (while making findings to satisfy the Court), Shaw opened the door for more legal challenges to majority-minority districts. In 1995 the Court more definitively rejected the notion of race-based districts in Miller v. Johnson. In this case, the Court rejected redistricting plans in which “race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature's decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district.” Miller forced the Georgia legislature to amend its reapportionment plan, and subsequent decisions forced other states to do the same. A number of incumbent minority legislators found themselves running for reelection in districts that no longer had a high proportion of minority voters. Many minority groups saw this as a reversal in their quest for greater representation. Some even claimed that Miller was akin to the 1857 Scott v. Sandford decision, which held that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” However, in a significant development, many of those same legislators were in fact reelected in their newly white-dominated districts.



Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Mark F. “Racial Gerrymandering.” The Public Interest (Winter, 1996): 59-70.
  • DiClerico, Robert E. Voting in America: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Rush, Mark E., ed. Voting Rights and Redistricting in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
  • Savage, David G. “The Redistricting Tangle.” State Legislatures (September, 1995): 20-24.
  • Swain, Carol M. “Limited Racial Gerrymandering.” Current (January, 1996): 3-6.
  • Zelden, Charles L. Voting Rights on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002.