There are topics so intuitively obvious to those of us who love maps that I figure I must have discussed them previously. Gerrymandering is one of those. However, as I go through the site’s Complete Index it is not listed. I won’t be making value statements rather I’ll be focusing on the weirdly twisted beauty of some of these occurrences as I describe some of the probable strategies involved in their creation.
Gerrymandering is by no means unique to the United States but it has been elevated to an art form more precisely here than probably anywhere else. For those in the international readership or who may need a civics refresher, Gerrymandering is the act of carving-up electoral districts in a way to benefit the political organization controlling the process. This can lead to the creation of districts that gives the organization an electoral advantage, puts the organization’s opponents at a disadvantage, or both. Gerrymandered districts often target key demographics such race, religion, class, language, or political affiliation for special attention, positive or negative.
SOURCE: Public domain image originally from the Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812
Gerrymander is a portmanteau, a word created from two other words crammed together. It’s a word mashup of "Gerry" and "Salamander." created in 1812. Elbridge Gerry served as governor of Massachusetts and signed-off on a redistricting plan that benefited his political party, the Democratic-Republicans. One district was thought to be so oddly shaped that it was said to resemble a salamander. A famous political cartoon lampooned the design and the name stuck. Its outline is almost quaint by today’s standards where computer-aided designs seek demographic advantage block-by-block.
While gerrymandering exists at all levels of United States government, I will focus on Congressional Districts for the House of Representatives because of their particular visibility and their sophisticated demographic hairsplitting. The opportunity commonly presents itself after each Decennial Census, the last of which occurred in 2000 (although precedence has been set to allow more frequent redistricting). In fact Congressional reapportionment was a fundamental purpose for the existence of Census from the outset.
There have been 435 members of the House of Representatives for the last several decades. Each state gets at least one representative regardless of population, and several have only that single representative. The remaining seats are dolled out to the states in proportion to their population. Overall, each district has an average population of about 650,000 people.
Since the total number of representatives hasn’t changed much recently, the number of Representatives per state has been shifting gradually to the south and to the west as the population migrates. Each state can decide pretty freely how to split the geographic apportionment of its representatives within a certain set of laws and court precedents such as the need to uphold proportional representation and various Civil Rights considerations. That doesn’t stop states from trying though, and a small number of particularly egregious examples are generally struck down after each major redistricting. This is a gross simplification of an extremely complicated process.
I’ve selected a few examples of potential gerrymandering. Sources for all of these images come from the National Atlas of the United States using the mapmaker tool layer for the 110th Congress by political party. Better maps are available on the same website under printable maps but I’ve selected the other option because political party is an important consideration. Both major parties play this game. It’s not the exclusive domain of one or the other.
Stacking refers to shoving as many people of a particular demographic or persuasion into a single district as possible. Consider the tortured shape of the Illinois 17th Congressional District. It ambles along the western portion of the state and extends out with four arms to some of the more urban areas, including the state capital of Springfield. It has elected a representative from the Democratic party (blue). Notice that the bordering areas of the state are represented by Republicans (red). Illinois The 17th appears to have been bizarrely shaped to propel one more Democrat into the national-level House of Representatives.
North Carolina Stacked
Stacking also exists in the North Carolina 12th Congressional District but for the opposite reason. Here the Republican party maintains control at the state level, and they’ve created a diagonal gash through the heart of the state to mitigate their opponents. This district is a sacrificial lamb. They’ve conceded a district to their opponents to buttress their majority in the surrounding districts. This district was the originally drawn so skinny that its width narrowed down solely to the lanes of Interstate Highway 85 at points. The Supreme Court required it to be redrawn and the result is shown above, improved but hardly a "normal" shape.
Cracking is another strategy usually found in urban areas. In this instance the Richmond, Virginia metropolitan area is divided into several districts perhaps to dilute the impact of the populace at its urban core. Richmond may be cracked or the one district may be stacked (or both).
New York City Protected
Gerrymandering isn’t done merely to favor one party over another. It’s also used to protect incumbents from either party who wish to cement permanent margins of victory. New York City is a stronghold of the Democratic party in vast swaths, but nonetheless, notice the bizarre patchwork of shapes. There doesn’t seem to be much of a need to gerrymander for political reasons so it may be for more personal reasons.
The increasing sophistication of gerrymandering has led to a distressingly non-competitive elections. Some states are starting to rebel. Iowa is a primary example. Here a nonpartisan bureau of the state legislature determines the boundaries. The boundaries of these districts follow logical patterns and county boundaries. Some of the most competitive Congressional elections in the United States happen here as a result.