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What is Gerrymandering?

Posted by Frances Belleza on

Gerrymandering is a topic we've been discussing a lot lately. But what is gerrymandering, exactly? And why is it important?


The term "Gerrymandering" refers to a political practice. Specifically: the manipulation of voter district boundaries to influence election outcomes.

At least once a decade - following the national census - state legislatures participate in redistricting, or the re-drawing of local, state, and congressional voting districts. 

As populations shift and grow over time, a state may gain or lose congressional districts. The proportion of residents in each district also become imbalanced, so legislatures must redraw districts such that they have equal populations. 

District Maps & Voter Representation

How these maps are drawn, however, have significant and lasting political implications. Consider this:

You have a population of 50 people, that is distributed as shown below. 40% of the population votes Orange, 60% of the population votes Purple. There are 5 congressional seats available to represent this population. Meaning: we need to draw 5 distinct voting districts, and each district will elect a representative that should represent their best interests. To make sure that each voter has equal representation, we should make sure that the districts are relatively equal in size - each district should have 10 voters. 

One way we could do this is to draw 5 rectangular districts, each encompassing the same number of orange and purple voters. However, because there are more purple than orange voters, this means that all districts would yield purple victories. In total, this map would produce 5 "Purple" representatives, and zero "Orange" reps.

While this map keeps districts compact, it leads to unfair outcome: 40% of voters might find themselves with representatives who campaigned on platforms different from their key interests. 

Alternatively, we could draw 5 districts oriented vertically, as shown below. In this case, 2 districts vote entirely Orange, and 3 vote entirely Purple. This result leads to proportional representation - Orange wins a proportional number of seats as reflected in the electorate. Even though Purple still holds a majority victory - and can push forward initiatives that a majority of voters support - Orange still has representatives to assert their interests.

Now, the interesting case. Can we draw a map to ensure a majority of Orange seats, even though there are fewer Orange than Purple voters?


Electoral Impacts of Gerrymandering 

In this case, we've snaked around the map to concentrate Purple voters in two "giveaway" Districts, and ensure Orange victories in three remaining Districts. We've employed two key gerrymandering tacts: (1) "cracking" - diluting opposition party’s voting by spreading supporters across many district, and (2) "packing" - concentrating opposition party's voting power in one district.

This map is neither compact, nor fair. Even though a majority of voters support Purple initiatives, they have fewer representatives to advocate for their interests.

Three different ways of drawing district maps can lead to three very different outcomes. Thus, who is responsible for redistricting decisions, and how they're motivated to make these decisions, is the key issue behind why Gerrymandering happens.

Often, politicians gerrymander to achieve desired electoral results for a particular party. Frequently, gerrymandering is employed to protect incumbents, making it difficult for an opposing party or newcomer to gain an electoral victory.

Political gerrymandering is both inefficient and undemocratic. It is contrary to the principle of descriptive representation, and creates extreme inefficiencies to advantage a particular group or incumbent.

Electoral results from gerrymandered maps will reflect the will of the legislative bodies drawing the maps - and not the will of the people who should be represented. 

Gerrymandering Today

So, what does this look like in practice?


Citizens across the country are continuing to challenge partisan gerrymandering, and the manipulation of district maps to achieve partisan outcomes. 

Notably, Gill v. Whitford (Wisconsin), and Rucho v. Common Cause (North Carolina) are ongoing cases whose decisions could have significant impact on how states draw electoral maps moving forward. 

Interested in this topic? Follow us on Instagram and Twitter to stay updated on this, and other news around democracy and voting. 








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