CONVERSATION / Politics / Deep Dive

District Lines Through The Times
A History Lesson on Gerrymandering

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The practice of manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts for party or class gain is as old as the United States, though the term is not. The U.S. is the only democracy in the world where politicians have an active role in creating voting districts, and it plays a large role in the divisive nature of our politics. Here is a brief history of gerrymandering.

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Give Me Liberty or Give Me Redistricting

Before the term "gerrymander" was coined and even prior to the U.S. Constitution taking effect, redistricting was already being employed for political gain. Late in 1788, just after Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution and join the union, former Governor Patrick Henry persuaded the state legislature to remake the 5th Congressional District, forcing Henry’s political enemy James Madison to run against the formidable James Monroe. The ploy failed and Madison won anyway, eventually becoming the nation’s fourth president. Monroe’s career wasn’t over, though: He succeeded Madison as president.

A Phrase Is Coined

The origin of the word “gerrymander” was a combination of “salamander” and the last name of Elbridge Gerry, who as governor of Massachusetts in 1812 signed into law a redistricting plan designed to benefit his political party. The term was put into print for the first time by the Federalist-leaning Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812. Printed alongside this cartoon, it described a newly formed district in Essex County, said to resemble the shape of a salamander. The portmanteau stuck. 

Reform & Reapportionment

Following the 1840 Census, the Apportionment Act of 1842 required that congressional districts be contiguous and compact. It set a ratio of one member of Congress for every 70,680 residents and decreased the size of the House of Representatives from 240 seats to 223. Prior to the act, many states elected their members of the House of Representatives at large, allowing for the majority party in a state to elect all of its congressmen. Significantly, the bill decreed for the first time, that states be split into congressional districts according to the number of representatives allotted to them and that a single representative be elected from each district. 

Republican Territorial Tricks

In 1889, the Dakota Territory entered the union as two states, North and South Dakota. The move was orchestrated by the Republican Party, then in control of Congress, to promote the admission of more states in territories leaning toward the party. By the rules for representation in the Electoral College, each state carried at least three electoral votes regardless of its population, meaning Republicans could dramatically increase their presidential chances by letting in the greatest number of GOP-leaning states.

State-Sanctioned Gerrymandering

After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, some states created “majority-minority” districts, in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white, based on Census data. This practice, also known as “affirmative gerrymandering,” was intended to remedy historic discrimination and promote the election of minority politicians. Section 5 of the bill stipulated that a handful of states -- all of which had created districts that systematically disadvantaged minority voters, and most which were in the Deep South -- had to get the Department of Justice’s approval on any redistricting plan. 

Shifting Precedents

In the 1993 decision Shaw vs. Hunt, the U.S Supreme Court found that North Carolina's legislature had violated the Constitution by using race as the predominant factor in drawing its 12th Congressional District's boundaries in 1992. But in Hunt vs. Cromartie(1999), the Court found that a redrawn 12th was constitutional because it was legal partisan gerrymandering -- designed to create a safe Democratic seat -- rather than illegal racial gerrymandering. 

Chicago-Style Politics, Obama Edition

In 2001, with Democrats in control of Illinois redistricting, then-state Senator Barack Obama was apparently able to reshape his district to his own specifications. That included drawing in wealthy supporters from Chicago’s Gold Coast. The new redistricting maintained Obama’s Hyde Park base, then lunged northward along the lakefront and toward downtown. As in Obama’s previous district, African-Americans retained a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but the new district was whiter, more prosperous, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated.

Tom Delay, The Killer D's & The Texas 11

Before an indictment for money laundering forced him to resign from Congress in 2006, powerful House Majority Leader Tom Delay played a crucial role in Texas’s contentious 2003 redistricting process and helped ensure Republican dominance in his home state. Though congressional districts had already been Census-adjusted in 2001, in 2003, Texas Republicans seized the opportunity of having a firm majority in the state assembly to redraw the lines to their advantage. Outraged Democrats claimed it was illegal to redistrict again. Fifty-one House Democratic representatives -- dubbed the “Killer D's” -- fled to Oklahoma to prevent the state house from reaching quorum. Later that summer, a group of Democratic state senators, the “Texas Eleven,” went to New Mexico for the same reason. The Republicans eventually prevailed, and 10 Democratic congressmen saw their districts markedly changed, with five losing in the 2004 congressional elections. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, where justices ruled that the redistricting plan was constitutional but that one of the new districts was illegally racially gerrymandered.