A Most Intriguing Political Animal

In the USA’s tempestuous modern political landscape, the “gerrymander” has raised its quizzical head

In the ongoing war of words that appears to amount to American politics latterly, we’ve heard much of the “gerrymander”. A most unique beast, it is a creation of man, a friend to those in power, and the enemy of those out of power.

Naturally, it’s not an actual beast, but one concept of party political warfare that the American public has been rather well-schooled lately. Gerrymandering is essentially the creation of constituency boundaries (in the USA these are typically Congressional districts) with the express purpose of dividing populations such that one power base is favored over another. It seems that certain geographic areas tend to vote for a certain variety of candidate; in Oregon, for example, the conventional wisdom holds that the urban areas of the state’s west and northwest, where most of the population lives, tends to vote for political candidates that are seen as more liberal and Democratic, versus the rural areas of the state, which tends to vote for candidates that are seen as more conservative and Republican.

From this observation, it follows that skillful division of such power blocs can enhance one side’s advantage at least either by splitting or concentrating those blocs of power.

The Original Beast

The Original GerrymanderElkanah Tisdale’s famous Gerrymander, drawn in 1812

The first documented sign of the beast was in Massachusetts, in the early 19th century.

Every 10 years, in concert with new information from the USA national census, electoral districts (which are based on population) are redrawn to reflect population shifts. When this was undertaken in 1812, the Republicans were in power in Massachusetts, and the commonwealth’s party endeavored to divide and conquer to the aim of reducing the aggregate power of the Republican’s major rival, which was, at the time, the Federalist party.

Examining a map of Essex County, legend has it it became quite clear to the Federalists what the Republicans were trying to accomplish. The Boston Gazette waggishly said that the elongated, sinuous district resembled a salamander; the editor of the Boston Weekly Messenger opined, even more waggishly, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”, dubbing it with the a portmanteau composed of the last name of the then-current governor (Republican Eldridge Gerry, who signed the plan into law) and the word salamander. Weekly Messenger cartoonist Elkanah Tisdale ran with it, and produced the first known picture of the now-famous political animal.

Gerrymanders in the Modern Political Bestiary

The concept of such an arbitrary divison, combined with the mercies of the USA’s political system–in which to the victor go all the spoils of power–have made the word gerrymander a verb as well as a noun, and have fueled some recent controversies, as was the case when the Texas legislature, in control of the Republican party, endeavored to redraw the Congressional district boundaries of the state some eight years early in order to create a preponderance of districts with Republican majorities, thus making a robust Republican majority in that state much more likely.

Illinois 4th DistrictThe 4th US Congressional district in Illinois, a peculiarly-shaped piece of land (courtesy nationalatlas.gov)

Since the majority party is usually in the driver’s seat, majority during a time of reapportionment is frequently viewed as a tool that can help make that majority longlasting, if not permanent, and these days, with the assistance of computers (the mass of population information making automated assistance necessary), many amazing examples of sprawling districts have happened. Many examples of areas that are sometimes called “helicopter districts” (because that’s what you have to use to go straight from one end to the other without lengthy detours) can be found without too much effort; to create majorities some district boundaries follow mere rights of ways of roads, forming areas that look like attenuated dumbbells.

The map illustration depicts Illinois US Congressional district 4, which seems to be riven in twain and then connected by a long, straggling runner which appears to follow local arterials and a regional Interstate highway, and may well in places be not much wider than that highway. It is hard for the observer not to want to conclude that the population in the middle was excluded from this district for one partisan reason or another.

Is It Possible to Kill the Gerrymander?

Whether or not one thinks gerrymandering has a deleterious effect to public policy making in the USA most likely depends on what side one is on. To a Democrat, a permanent Democratic majority might be worth whatever drawbacks that it may bring, and gerrymandering to the aim of ensconcing percieved advantages has the potential of making those alignments real.

A fair number of proposals have been advanced in order to remove the power of the gerrymander. There are technical aspects, such as establishing fixed districts or using more objective criteria, such as rigid rules on the “compactness”–or tendency to have districts that do not have outliers–of districts.

In as much as the party in power strives to remain in power, however, most schemes ought at least to excise the partisan tendency of the majority party to have the driver seat.


  1. Wikipedia entry on Gerrymandering: goes into great detail on methods of gerrymandering
  2. Drawing the Line, Mark Monmonier, Henry Holt pub, 1996, pp 196-201