BlackFacts Details

Definition of Gerrymander

To gerrymander is to draw the boundaries of electoral districts in an irregular way so as to create an unfair advantage for a particular political party or faction.

The origin of the term gerrymander dates back to the early 1800s in Massachusetts. The word is a combination of the words Gerry, for the states governor, Elbridge Gerry, and salamander, as a particular electoral district was jokingly said to be shaped like a lizard.

The practice of creating oddly shaped electoral districts to create advantages has endured for two centuries.

Criticisms of the practice can be found in newspapers and books going back to the time of the incident in Massachusetts that inspired the term.

And while it has always been viewed as something done wrongfully, nearly all political parties and factions have practiced gerrymandering when given the opportunity.

The United States Constitution specifies that seats in Congress are apportioned according to the U.S. Census (indeed, thats the original reason why the federal government has conducted a census every ten years). And the individual states must create congressional districts which will then elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The situation in Massachusetts in 1811 was that the Democrats (who were political followers of Thomas Jefferson, not the later Democratic Party which still exists) held the majority of seats in the state legislature, and could therefore draw the required Congressional districts.

The Democrats wanted to thwart the power of their opponents, the Federalists, the party in the tradition of John Adams. A plan was devised to create Congressional districts that would divide any concentrations of Federalists. With the map drawn in an irregular way, small pockets of Federalists would then be residing within districts where they would be heavily outnumbered.

The plans to draw these peculiarly shaped districts were, of course, highly controversial. And the lively New England newspapers engaged in quite a battle of words, and, eventually, even