Just the Facts

Five Facts on Gerrymandering

By No Labels
July 2, 2019 | Blog

“Gerrymandering” is a term used to describe the drawing of political districts with the intent of gaining partisan advantage. 

The term “gerrymander” was first used in 1812 after new districts were drawn for the Massachusetts state Senate elections. Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s administration created districts that disproportionately held Democratic-Republican voters over federalist voters. One of Boston’s new districts looked like a salamander, which led to the name “Gerry-mander.” [1]

Gerrymandering may not be as responsible for political polarization as many people imagine.

Recent studies on the drivers of polarization and increasingly uncompetitive elections – in which one party is almost always expected to win a given district – suggest gerrymandering might not play as big a role as popularly imagined. In fact, the demographic phenomenon of self-sort (i.e. liberals preferring to live alongside other liberals and conservatives with conservatives) appears to be a much bigger factor.[2]

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Virginia racial gerrymandering case on June 17.

Republicans controlled the Virginia House of Delegates and Democrats controlled the state Senate in 2011. A federal, three-judge panel found that the Republican-drawn House map put too much emphasis on race in 11 districts, making the map improper. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against the House of Delegates’ appeal. The majority reasoned that the House did not have standing to sue because the House did not suffer a direct injury since the right to choose representatives is in the hands of the voters.[3]

On June 27, the Supreme Court announced that federal courts cannot hear partisan gerrymandering cases.

The Court did not condone gerrymandering in this decision, the question that the Court answered was if federal courts have the judicial power to make decisions about state gerrymandering. State legislatures have a constitutional right to draw voting districts. The 5-4 majority ruled that redistricting is inherently political, which bars courts from second-guessing the decisions of lawmakers. The decision was on two gerrymandering cases, a North Carolina case with Republican gerrymandering and a Maryland case with Democratic gerrymandering.[4]

Some states have independent redistricting commissions to prevent gerrymandering.

Independent redistricting commissions draw voting districts. Each commission is formed differently depending on state laws, but the legislature has little authority in redistricting in any state with an independent redistricting commission. Supporters of these commissions believe that allowing elected state legislators to draw voting maps leads to legislators drawing maps in their favor, rather than in the favor of voters. Opponents of independent redistricting commissions argue that these commissions are unconstitutional because the U.S. Constitution vests the power of redistricting to state legislators.[5]

[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/gerrymandering

[2] https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/ending-gerrymandering-wont-fix-what-ails-america/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-dismisses-challenge-to-findings-of-racial-gerrymandering-in-virginia-districts/2019/06/17/aa1f02d2-8618-11e9-98c1-e945ae5db8fb_story.html?utm_term=.c9b84e8497c6

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/27/us/politics/supreme-court-gerrymandering.html

[5] https://ballotpedia.org/Independent_redistricting_commissions

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