Gerrymandering is an American slang term which refers to redrawing the boundaries of a district so that the new district favors a particular party or candidate, typically the one in power. In addition to being a colorful piece of 19th century slang, it is also a serious problem, and can be used to disenfranchise voters. Because of the temptation to gerrymander, political districts are carefully examined when they are redrawn, and some disputes are taken to court. Gerrymandering is also illegal in the United States code, meaning that people convicted of gerrymandering will face consequences.
The term is actually a portmanteau word, a melding of “salamander” and “Gerry.” While Governor Elbridge Gerry may have made other contributions to the American political landscape, he is most well remembered for his creative and radical redrawing of districts in Massachusetts. One of the districts resembled a lizard or salamander, and many political cartoons of the period exaggerated the resemblance. “Gerrymandering” quickly entered popular English, as it was a colorful and descriptive term as well as a political epithet.
The origins of gerrymandering lie in the way in which the United States is governed. In an attempt to provide representative democracy, each state is allowed a certain number of representatives, based on its population, in addition to two Senators. The state is subsequently divided into Congressional districts, with each representative coming from an individual district. In a state with eight representatives, there will be eight districts. This ensures that each representative has a tie to some part of the state, and can advocate for specific constituents. The districts are supposed to have roughly equal populations, and they should be drawn upon nonpartisan lines, to ensure that every candidate has an equal chance of capturing a district.
However, districts are commonly drawn in peculiar shapes to favor voters of one party or another. By shaping a district oddly, the people drawing the district can ensure a higher concentration of voters who will favor a particular candidate, thus ensuring a victory in that district. Gerrymandering can also be used to influence a state election, as Elbridge Gerry tried to do, by slanting all of the districts to favor him, and isolating small pockets of the opposing party so that they had no voting clout.
The issue of gerrymandering has continued to plague American politics, especially since minority voters have become more outspoken about the rights violation with gerrymandering represents. The problem will probably never entirely disappear, as the pursuit of power can be a powerful incentive for illegal action. However, careful monitoring of district redrawing, combined with prosecution in court when necessary, may help to reduce the problem and to ensure that districts serve their original purpose, of offering fair representation to all.