I have a vague idea of what gerrymandering is and that it appears to be common in the US, but I don't really understand where it comes from, how it is applied, how common "common" really is, whether there is public support for this practice, etc.

Considering the US specifically, could you explain...

  • How did gerrymandering evolve from a practice applied by the governor of Massachusetts to something commonly applied across the US?
  • How often do voting districts change? Do they change with every election? Or is it more like once every generation?
  • Are there any aspects to gerrymandering that are specific to the US or certain parts of the US?
  • Is there broad general support for this practice in the US? If yes, how are Americans convinced that this is a benign practice?
  • An easy way out would be to have proportional seat distribution instead of districts. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 23:17

2 Answers 2


How did gerrymandering evolve from a practice applied by one senator in Massachusetts to something commonly applied across the US?

Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts is normally considered the inspiration for the term. He was not a Senator but a governor. And he was not the source of the practice (even in Massachusetts in 1812, he only agreed with legislation passed by others). The first use in the United States was the drawing of the 5th congressional district of Virginia in 1788--for the first congressional election.

The name spread because this practice was common enough that people needed a name to describe it.

How often do voting districts change? Do they change with every election? Or is it more like once every generation?

Theoretically voting districts could change with every election, but they usually don't. Voting districts have to change every ten years to address any changes in population found in the decennial census. The census is explicitly constitutionally mandated, and there is an implicit requirement (called One Person One Vote) that districts be balanced in population. So districts were rebalanced in 2011 for the 2012 elections and will be rebalanced in 2021 for the 2022 elections. The census was in 2010 and will be in 2020.

Mid-decade redistrictings happen but are rare. Texas did one in 2003.

Are there any aspects to gerrymandering that are specific to the US or certain parts of the US?

I'm not sure what this means. In some states, e.g. New Jersey, Iowa, Arizona, and California, gerrymandering is done by an allegedly non-partisan commission. These commissions are perhaps less extreme than the partisan gerrymanders of states like Illinois and Maryland. But the California gerrymander by the commission underrepresents Republicans significantly. The Arizona and New Jersey gerrymanders both produce different results than their registrations would suggest. Iowa is currently 3 to 1 Republican and could easily swing to 3 to 1 Democrat.

I would argue that the problem isn't gerrymandering per se. The problem is that geographic districts are inherently nonproportional. They create arbitrary boundaries. For example, most don't consider Massachusetts to be gerrymandered, but it is currently 8-0 Democrats even though registrations are 50% Democrat to 25% Republican. So shouldn't that be 4-2-2 (Democrat-Republican-independent)? But you can't get there with redistricting, as independents and Republicans are spread more evenly throughout the state.

Is there broad general support for this practice in the US? If yes, how are Americans convinced that this is a benign practice?

Americans aren't. Politicians are convinced that they should do what is best for them. This means that Democrats are pro-commission while Republicans are pro-gerrymander. Neither is particularly interested in finding solutions that would better represent voters by empowering alternative parties or independents.

Another issue is that in the areas where it matters, it advantages the party in power. In other words, among the voters who matter, they are getting the representation that they want. This used to pretty consistently be the Democrats. Now it is pretty consistently the Republicans (with some exceptions). Magically, the pro-gerrymander Democrats turned against it and anti-gerrymander Republicans are now for it. Except in states like Maryland and Illinois, where the Democrats in power gerrymandered the districts to push out Republicans.

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    "Democrats are pro-commission while Republicans are pro-gerrymander" - what do you mean by "Gerrymander" here? It is defined as "manipulating boundaries so as to favor one party or class", which I highly doubt one party would openly support. Also, how is "pro-commission" an opposite stance - as you stated, boundaries set by commissions can also be gerrymander-ed. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 21:25
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    Regarding proportional representation, that works if you see elected officials as representative of a whole state, but not if you see them as representative of a subset of them. A representative chosen by urban voters will likely have different interests than an representative chosen by rural voters, even if they are in the same state. There's also the question of where the candidates in a proportional system come from; the only way to make sure that you get a mix of urban and rural candidates is to have some sort of districts. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 2:11

Generally voting districts in a state are defined and controlled by the state legislature. Let's use my home state, North Carolina, as an example.

N.C. currently has 13 congressional districts. In the United States we hold a decennial census (every 10 years). There are other population surveys done in between, but once every decade is the big one where we try to count everybody. Once the counting is done, an apportionment of districts are decided for each state. The total number of apportionments is exactly equal to the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (currently at 435). The Senate is ignored because its membership is exactly equal between the states, whereas the membership of the House is allocated based off of population, each state gets 1 representative per district. So in 2020 after the next census is completed, N.C. may not have 13 congressional districts anymore, it could have 12 or 14 or 15, depending on population increases/decreases relative to all of the other states.

Once N.C. receives its allocation after the census, its State Legislature is charged with coming up with new voting districts. Not all states defer to the legislature, some have a completely independent commission draw the lines. This is a good resource for more information on how each state draws their lines.

For a state legislature to adopt a new map, all that is really needed is for them to pass the new map as a state law. If no one has a problem with the new map, great, otherwise someone will most likely sue the state in federal court over it, usually on the basis of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act which requires states not to engage in practices that discriminate on the basis of race or color.

Historically, I think the large-scale practice of gerrymandering began right before and after the Civil War. New States were being added to the union and it was a big fight every single time deciding whether slavery was going to be legal in each new territory or not. Slaveholding states wanted to protect their industry, and were afraid of new, "free" states being added because they would allow the free states to form a coalition that would outright abolish slavery in the whole country. This is similar to the reason behind there being both a North Dakota and a South Dakota rather than just a single "Dakota," because the Republicans and Democrats of the day were keen to only adopt new territories as states should it help them politically, and often times a balance of ideology was necessary in what states were admitted and when in order to strike a bargain. In the Electoral College, each new state gets, at a minimum, 3 electoral votes regardless of population, so splitting the Dakotas into two wound up doubling their influence in Presidential elections.

You should keep in mind that so far answer only addresses federal voting districts. North Carolina's State Legislature also has two chambers (a State House and a State Senate). The State Senate is composed of 50 members and the State House is composed of 120 members, so we actually have 3 different types of voting districts that we need to be concerned about: the U.S. House voting district, the N.C. Senate voting district, and the N.C. House voting district. You can see the maps for all 3 of these here. I bring this up only because the Voting Rights Act is only applicable to the U.S. House voting district map. The North Carolina General Assembly has much greater flexibility by statute to determine the boundaries of State-level districts.

From what I can tell, the answer to your last question is no. Gerrymandering as a practice is not supported by the population on either side, but because of timing of the last census with a wave of Republican takeovers of state legislatures, Republicans are generally seen as being more guilty of the practice in the current day and age. Some forget that Democrats are by no means innocent. I can't seem to find a source at the moment, but one of the arguments back in the 1960s and 1970s was that, in order to get black politicians elected, they needed a mostly-black district in order to support them. Even though the end of having a more diverse Congress can be thought of as more noble than simply aspiring for a partisan majority, the means taken wound up being the same: drawing districts such that people of a certain race were lumped together, and the same means have been turned around now in an effort to dilute the same population's voting power. Recently there has been a somewhat strong movement towards using a bipartisan, independent commission to draw maps, however a divided Supreme Court has also weakened some of the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act.

Given how ingrained in the American conscience fighting for one's beliefs are, I don't really see the practice itself dying out anytime soon, regardless of what it is called.

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