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5 Things You Need to Know About Gerrymandering — Including the Definition

October 5, 2017, 10:00 AM UTC

The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments Tuesday for Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymandering case. If the justices rule in favor of Wisconsin’s Democratic voters, which brought the case against the state’s government, this would be the first time the court has struck down the practice.

Partisan gerrymandering involves manipulating the size and shape of electoral districts in order to favor one political party over the other. Sens. John McCain (R-Az.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) issued a joint statement about the Wisconsin gerrymandering case Tuesday, arguing that “the American people do not like gerrymandering.” So how did slicing and dicing districts get started in the first place?

Here are 5 things you need to know about gerrymandering ahead of a potentially new legal standard for the practice.

What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering occurs when voting districts are redrawn to benefit one party over another in elections, forcing the other side to “waste” votes. For example, someone drawing district lines might cluster opposition party voters together in one district in order to concentrate their votes so that they influence only a few seats. Or it could mean grouping those opposition voters into districts where the other party has a lock on power—making it very difficult for the opposing party to win elections there.

Achieving this normally means dividing districts up along highly irregular lines to ensure that voters from each party are concentrated in the right areas and spread thin in others, as the Washington Post illustrates using a popular explanation adapted from Reddit. Now, with the assistance of software, state legislators are able to control gerrymandering or who ends up in a particular district with more precision than ever before.

In Wisconsin, gerrymandering led to Republicans holding 60% of the state assembly seats, according to the Post, while the party received less than half of votes. This raised concerns that gerrymandering is denying constituents their right to vote.

Where did the term gerrymandering come from?

The name comes from Elbridge Gerry, a founding father, the fifth vice president of the United States, and the governor of Massachusetts, who signed a bill that created the first curiously misshapen district in the state designed to elect Democratic-Republicans over Federalists in 1812.

Is gerrymandering legal?

There is currently no law against gerrymandering, but the outcome of the Wisconsin gerrymandering case could change that. If the Supreme Court sides with the challengers rather than the Wisconsin government that created the district map, then some forms of partisan gerrymandering could be ruled unconstitutional.

The Wisconsin gerrymandering case will likely come down to Supreme Court Justice and frequent swing-voter Anthony M. Kennedy, who on Tuesday seemed critical of Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting plan.

Is gerrymandering and redistricting the same?

They don’t have to be. While gerrymandering takes advantage of redistricting to give the political party in power an advantage over their opponent, redistricting still happens every ten years, as Congressional districts are redrawn based on updated U.S. Census data (just another reason to be worried about the 2020 Census).

Gerrymandering examples

The Wisconsin case is the example getting all the attention. However, there are other cases challenging gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina. Vox reports that other highly gerrymandered states include Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.