What exactly is gerrymandering, and how did we come up with the name? The word itself simply refers to a means of redrawing electoral maps in a manner that deliberately restructures districts into unusual shapes, in order to achieve specific political aims. If it sounds shady and suspect... that's because it is. In short, it is all that we should have, by now, come to expect from American politics.
In the past, gerrymandering has been used by the powers that be to either preserve or strengthen their hold on the electoral process and the various houses of government―both locally and nationwide―and to marginalize certain constituents, discriminating along racial, political, language or religious lines. In the modern-day, the process of gerrymandering is chiefly used on a national basis by the party in power to preserve gains that are made in the U.S. House of Representatives, thus making gerrymandering a central point of interest.
Origin of the Term Gerrymandering
The term gerrymander, which was originally written as 'gerry-mander', was first used in the Boston Gazette newspaper in March, 1812. The term was coined in response to the efforts of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts in such a manner that the Democratic-Republican party clearly was assisted, to the detriment of the opposing Federalist party. Upon looking at the map, many remarked that the drawing resembled a salamander, and a popular political cartoon of the time showed a dragon wrapped around the outside the map. Conjecture has it that a Federalist leader saw the redrawn map, and, making a play on words, said that it was best called a 'gerrymander', rather than a salamander. Thereafter, as writers took to covering elections in 1812, and elections thereafter, the word was used continuously to refer to this new process, that was, in essence, created by Gerry.
What is Accomplished with Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering itself is utilized, most often by the incumbent party, to maximize the votes of the controlling party while marginalizing the votes of the opposing party. One strategy of gerrymandering, referred to as 'packing', leads to a concentration of one type of voters into a single electoral district. The point of this is to minimize the effect of those voters in other districts. In essence, those redrawing political districts are willing to overwhelmingly lose a single district or small group of districts by conceding them in favor of a comfortable margin of victory in the remaining districts.
Another strategy, referred to as 'cracking', spreads out voters of a particular type, i.e., from a given party, in order to allow them to come together in a single important districts or small group of districts. The two strategies are most often combined in order to achieve maximum effect, which sees a small group of districts willingly forfeited in exchange for fairly comfortable wins in enough districts to control the election.
Modern Application of Gerrymandering
Modern instances of gerrymandering are too numerous to count, but some examples include California's 23rd district, which isolates presumably wealthy―likely Republican―voters along the coast, thus eliminating those voters' effect on many other districts, as well as California's 11th Congressional district, which was redrawn to favor the then-Republican incumbent. Another glaring example includes the Texas 22nd district, an odd-shaped district that was presumably engineered to help former Representative Tom DeLay, a Republican.