Gerrymandering is an electoral system pathology in which electoral district/constituency boundaries) are manipulated for electoral advantage, usually of incumbents or a specific political party. Gerrymandering may also be used to advantage a particular racial, linguistic, religious or class group. The word gerrymander serves both as a verb meaning to perpetrate the abuse and as a noun describing the resulting electoral geography.
Origins of the term
The term is named for an early Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry. Two reporters were looking at the new election map and one commented that one of the new districts looked just like a salamander. The other retorted that it looked like a Gerrymander. The name stuck and is now used by political scientists everywhere. (While Elbridge Gerry pronounced his name with a "hard G" as in "gate," the word "gerrymander" is usually pronounced with a "soft G" as in "gesture.")
Gerrymandering is most effective in electoral systems with districts that elect a single representative, which include first-past-the-post a.k.a. single member district/plurality electoral systems and majority runoff a.k.a. single member district/majority electoral systems. Gerrymandering is possible, however, in any electoral system with multiple electoral districts. Only Israel and the Netherlands have electoral systems with only one electoral district.
One form of gerrymandering occurs when the boundaries of a constituency are changed in order to eliminate some area with a high concentration of people who vote in a similar way (e.g for a certain political party). Another form occurs when an area with a high concentration of similar voters is split among several districts, ensuring that the party has a small majority in several districts rather than a large majority in one. A converse method is to draw boundaries so that a group opposing those manipulating the boundaries are concentrated in as few areas as possible, so as to minimise their representation and influence. Often, such gerrymandering is held to redress a long-overlooked imbalance, as when creating a black majority district.
Many Electoral Reform packages advocate fixed or neutrally defined district borders to eliminate this manipulation. One such scheme of neutrally defined district borders is bioregional democracy which follows the borders of terrestrial ecoregions as defined by ecology. Presumably, scientific criteria would be immune to politically motivated manipulation.
However, the problem with any geographically static districting system is that it does not take in to account changes in population, meaning that individual electors can grow to have vastly different degrees of influence on the legislative process. This is particularly a problem during times of large population movements, and was especially prominent in the United Kingdom during the industrial revolution. (See: Reform Act and rotten borough)
For this reason, scientists have proposed algorithmic ways of dividing consistuencies. Desirable criteria for the outcomes are:
- the consistuencies must be connected (i.e. each in a single piece);
- the consistuencies should not be too elongated;
- the consistuencies should have approximately the same population.
Gerrymandering is also posible in multi-member electoral systems, but generally the drawing of boundaries are only effective at determining which party wins the last seat in a close contest.
The Dame Shirley Porter case
Yet another method is to attempt to move the population within the existing boundaries. This occurred in Westminster, in the United Kingdom. The local government was controlled by the Conservative party, and the leader of the council, Dame Shirley Porter, conspired with others to implement the policy of council house sales in such a way as to shore up the Conservative vote in marginal wards by selling the houses there to people thought likely to vote Conservative. An inquiry by the district auditor found that these actions had resulted in financial loss to tax payers and Porter and three others were surcharged to cover the loss. Porter was accused of "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" by district auditor John Magill . Those surcharged resisted this ruling with a legal challenge, but, in December 2001, the appeal court upheld the district auditor's ruling. Despite further lengthy legal argument Porter eventually accepted a deal to end the long-running saga, and paid £12 million (out of an original claimed £27 million plus costs and interest) to Westminster Council in July, 2004.
Gerrymandering in Northern Ireland
A particularly famous case occurred in Northern Ireland, where the Ulster Unionist Party government created electoral boundaries for local councils which, coupled with restrictions on voting rights based on economic status, ensured the election of unionist candidates in electoral areas where nationalists were in the overwhelming majority. This policy, coupled with a policy that gave council houses to unionists at the expense of nationalists (in one famous case, giving a council house to an unmarried protestant woman rather than a large catholic family), to ensure unionist control of electoral wards, produced the Civil Rights Movement. The battle for civil rights in local government, and an end to gerrymandered discrimination, led to The Troubles.
Apologists dismiss the gerrymandering of the Northern Ireland Assembly to be popular myth, saying that the electoral boundaries for the Parliament of Northern Ireland were not gerrymandered to any great extent, and the electoral system originally used for this body Single Transferable Vote (STV) made it difficult to gerrymander successfully. However, this system of proportional representation was abolished in the late 1920s in favour of first-past-the-post. The Parliament of Northern Ireland was abolished in 1973, and STV was restored for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. (See Tullymandering below.)
Gerrymandering in the United States
Others realized that gerrymandering was cutting minority populations in half to keep all minorities in the minority, in as many districts as possible. This led to a major civil rights conflict; Gerrymandering for the purpose of reducing the political influence of a racial or ethnic minority group is illegal in the United States under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but redistricting for political gain is constitutional.
The possibility of gerrymandering makes the process of redistricting extremely politically contentious within the United States. Under U.S. law, districts for members of the House of Representatives are redrawn every ten years following each census and it is common practice for state legislative boundaries to be redrawn at the same time. Battles over contentious redistricting take place within state legislatures, which are responsible for creating the electoral maps in most states, as well as federal courts. Sometimes this process creates strange bedfellows; in some states, Republicans have cut deals with African American Democratic state legislators to create majority black districts. These districts essentially ensure the election of an African American Congressman, but due to voting patterns, end up concentrating the Democratic vote in such a way that surrounding districts are more likely to vote Republican.
The introduction of computers has made redistricting a more precise science, but the incentives for elites to create maps that increase their delegation in Congress remain. Many political analysts have argued that the United States House of Representatives has been gerrymandered to the point that there are now very few contested seats, and have also argued that this has a number of detrimental effects, among which is that the lack of contested seats makes it unnecessary for candidates to attract middle voters and compromise. A longtime Pennsylvania legislator active in redistricting issues, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said that "all too often the governmental purpose of equalizing populations has yielded to the political purpose of factional or partisan politics. Voters, not redistricters, should be selecting public officials."
In the Republic of Ireland in the mid 1970s, the Minister for Local Government, James Tully, attempted to arrange constituencies to ensure that the governing National Coalition would win a parliamentary majority. This he did by ensuring as many as possible three-seat constituencies where the governing parties were strong, in the expectation that the governing parties would each win a seat in many constituencies, relegating the opposition Fianna Fáil party to one out of three. In areas where the governing parties were weak four-seat constituencies were used so that the governing parties had a strong chance of winning two still. In fact the process backfired spectacularly due to a larger than expected collapse in the vote, with Fianna Fáil winning two out of three in many cases, relegating the National Coalition parties to fight for the last seat. His attempted gerrymander came to be called a Tullymander.