The Intricacies of Gerrymandering


Joslyn Varkey, Staff Writer

Gerrymandering is not a new concept in US politics. It’s a term that has been thrown around for decades, often in relation to elections. Gerrymandered districts are typically found in states under Republican leadership. This traces back to the many Republican victories in the 2010 elections, allowing the party to expand their control of state legislatures. These state legislatures oversaw the drawing of districts after the 2010 census. The large victory was greatly due to the fact that the party had invested in state legislative elections, aiming to control redistricting while their opponent, the Democratic Party, had not. Republican states North Carolina, Michigan, and Ohio are noted for their blatant gerrymandered districts along with the Democratic states of Maryland and Illinois. Illinois is a prime example of the effects of gerrymandering; its division of Chicago uses copious amounts of urban Democrats to combat with the Republican dominated suburbs. 

Gerrymandering is a practice dating back to the nineteenth century. Its founding father, Elbridge Gerry, signed a bill in 1812 as the governor of Massachusetts that allowed his party to redraw districts to favor their candidates over those of the Federalists’. One district in particular was noted for having the shape of a salamander, a detail later incorporated by a Boston editorial cartoonist who drew the district with a head and claws and dubbed it the “gerry-mander.” Unfortunately, Gerry’s bill didn’t help his party for long. Their rival party, the Federalists, won control of the senate merely a year after he passed the infamous bill. 

Critics of the practice have fought back by taking the issue to court, arguing that gerrymandering violates the constitution. Federal law is firmly against racial gerrymandering which is particularly biased against minority groups but partisan gerrymandering is permitted. Partisan gerrymandering is when district lines are drawn based on how residents voted. The Supreme Court has voted in favor of those opposing gerrymandering in cases of racial bias but has yet to reject redrawn districts catering towards a specific party. This is largely in part to the justices being unable to decide on a standard to distinguish illegally biased maps and valid ones. Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr and four other conservative justices argued that for judges to contemplate claims of blatant gerrymandering they would require “a limited and precise standard” that is “clear, manageable, and politically neutral”. They then went on to admit that such a standard has yet to be proposed. They did however mention that the court is not condoning or endorsing gerrymandering but rather leaving it to congress and individual states to deal with the matter. Certain states have constitutions allowing for a more voter friendly attack on gerrymandering in comparison to the fairly lenient national constitution. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated the Republican drawn map with the state constitution in mind and democrats were largely victorious in that year’s house elections. 

Going back to the 2010 elections, those elections are largely to blame for aggressive Republican gerrymandering seen across the board. In Wisconsin, gerrymandering has allowed for republicans to maintain state legislative control despite opponents winning state races. The 2022 congressional elections are likely to be full of gerrymandered districts. Experts predict that republicans could rely solely on redistricting to flip the half dozen seats needed for Republican majority in the chamber. This year, elections are a little different. The release of the census had been delayed for months due to the pandemic of Covid 19. States were only reported to have received detailed data in September. Because of this delayed release, Virginia and New Jersey will be using their old maps for this year’s elections. Most US states still have legal deadlines to meet for new maps but experts predict that many will ask courts for extensions. Some government groups worry that this delay could lead to more extreme cases of gerrymandering since there is very little time for elaborate challenges to reach the courts before the 2022 elections. A 2013 Supreme Court decision to eliminate a section of the Voting Rights Act will make it all the more difficulty for civil rights groups to act against gerrymandering. In previous years, states with histories of racial bias were required to get clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws but the court removed this portion from the act. 

Public awareness of biased redistricting has only grown as years pass. Reform groups, particularly those belonging to the left, have toiled for years opposing Republican gerrymandering particularly that of 2011. The public blindness to gerrymandering is lessening and thus gerrymandering may be harder to achieve in 2021. To quote Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for Common Cause, “Up until recently, redistricting has been obscure, but also obscured – intentionally so. That curtain is coming down.”