What Is Gerrymandering?

Every ten years, the Census Bureau conducts a nationwide census, gathering basic background information such as age, sex, and race from people all over the country. The information gathered by the census is used to aid the country as it adapts to the new standards set before it and as it fulfills the constitutional guarantees of its people. An example of this is the process of redistricting. Electoral and political district boundaries are redrawn to accompany the growing or declining populations in particular areas. Once the boundaries are set, a proportionate amount of representatives are seated for each district, and each representative is assigned to a specific district to ensure that the needs of the people in the region are met. Throughout the years, however, politicians have used their power to redraw boundary lines for their own personal political gains. Gerrymandering is the process of redrawing and organizing the districts to give a party or group an electoral advantage over the other. Gerrymandering plays a key role in the development of the political scene. It is commonly singled out as the “primary source of polarization in Congress”, therefore receiving negative feedback from the public. However, recent studies have shown that our views of gerrymandering are a common misconception.

The practice of gerrymandering can be traced back to Patrick Henry, one of the nation’s founding fathers and an opponent of the new Constitution. Patrick Henry attempted to draw district lines to deny James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, a seat in Congress. He drew district lines around areas that included strong opposition to Madison. Although Henry’s plan failed, the idea of gerrymandering was formed. Over time, gerrymandering expanded into several forms. One study conducted by Farkul Gul and Wolfgang Pesendorfer discussed the outcomes of a partisan gerrymander, the most common type. According to the study, two parties decided to redraw their redistricting plans to “maximize their probability of winning a majority in the House of Representatives”. In this situation, the stronger party chose to segregate more people than the other, eventually giving the stronger party an advantage. Gul and Pesendorfer learned from their model that “when one party controls redistricting, the equilibrium policy is biased towards the preferences of the redistricting party’s supporters”. Most forms of gerrymandering have results similar to Gul and Pesendorfer’s findings, where one party uses its extensive influence for political gain.  

Many people have questioned the constitutionality of gerrymandering. Generally, the process of gerrymandering is regarded as constitutional by the Supreme Court, however, there are specific types of gerrymandering that are deemed unconstitutional. Racial gerrymandering, for example, is prohibited under the “Voting Rights Act of 1965”. A state cannot make changes to its redistricting plans without first establishing that the change does not, and will not, discriminate against a minority group or race. Even if this has been ruled, the Act has not been properly enforced, and states have often taken advantage of it. Race, in fact, seems to play an important role in redistricting and gerrymandering. In Cox and Holden’s Reconsidering Racial and Partisan Gerrymandering, a model of an optimal partisan gerrymander puts race into play. Cox and Holden use two races – African American and American. The African American Democrats outnumber the white Republicans in this scenario. In an optimal partisan gerrymander, the “Democratic redistricting authority will create a majority-minority district for purely partisan reasons. But the Democrats would not create anything like a supermajority in this district”.  The Democrats would continue to maintain their majority-minority plan, while the Republicans would include the African American minority through a completely different method. The Republicans would “create districts in which African American voters remain just below 50 percent of the district”. The two political parties would continue to do so until they have reached an equilibrium. Cox and Holden’s model is the epitome of partisan and racial gerrymandering. It displays and emphasizes the perfect form of gerrymandering we try to achieve.  

Gerrymandering is an important aspect of the political scene that we must acknowledge and understand. Thomas E. Mann’s study about the importance of gerrymandering points out that “gerrymandering increasingly may be less of a cause and more of an effect of polarization”. Over the years, sociologists and political scientists have performed social experiments, and have collected and analyzed data to further expand our knowledge about gerrymandering. Although we are not experts in the psychological and social reasoning behind gerrymandering, we have more information about its idea, and can successfully create reforms to better the concept of gerrymandering.