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Gerrymandering is the process of drawing congressional districts in a way that favors one political party or interest group. In this lesson, we’ll consider examples of gerrymandering, some typical strategies, and gerrymandering’s effect on elections.

Gerrymandering: North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District

North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District looks kind of like a long blob that stretches out thinly across the state. The district runs awkwardly along Interstate 85, sometimes no wider than the highway itself, and other times wide and bulky. The district was so awkwardly drawn because state leaders wanted to create a predominantly African-American congressional district. The problem was that most African Americans didn’t live together in one geographic district. Instead, the majority of African Americans lived in cities along Interstate 85.

North Carolina’s 12th District is a prime example of a political process called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering refers to the practice in which state legislatures draw congressional districts in a particular way in order to increase the likelihood of certain political parties or interest groups winning or losing elections. In the case of North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, the state legislature purposely drew the district this way to ensure that the district had a majority of minority voters (in this case, it was a majority of African-American voters).

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History of Gerrymandering

The term ‘gerrymandering’ goes back to the 19th century. In 1812, the Boston Gazette coined the word in reaction to Massachusetts’s governor Elbridge Gerry’s redistricting of the Boston region. This new district was awkwardly drawn to benefit his political party and happened to look like a salamander on the map. Thus, the term ‘gerrymander’ was birthed as the newspaper’s tongue-in-cheek response.

There are currently 435 congressional representatives. Each state is allocated a certain number of congressional districts based on population results from the U.S. Census, which is mandated by the Constitution to be performed every 10 years. But how those congressional districts are drawn is up to state legislatures. And since state legislatures are comprised of politicians, the process can get inherently difficult and political. If a state legislature becomes predominantly Republican or Democratic, then those parties might be inclined to gerrymander districts so that their party can win more seats.

Two Types of Gerrymandering: Packing and Cracking

There are two main gerrymandering strategies. The first is called packing. In this strategy, congressional districts are drawn in order to put as many people likely to vote for one party in the same district. While that guarantees a victory for the party, it also makes that party less competitive in other districts and diminishes its power.

Essentially, you might just be wasting your party’s votes.Packing can be used to ensure that a minority group also is represented in Congress. In the case of North Carolina’s 12th District, the lines were drawn using packing to ensure that it was a minority-majority district so that African Americans could have a seat in Congress. But at the same time, gerrymandering can be used potentially to discriminate against minorities. Such cases, while difficult to prove, have been outlawed by the Supreme Court.The other strategy is called cracking.

In this strategy, people with a common interest are divided up and grouped with another majority. An example of this comes from Columbus, Ohio, a mostly Democratic and liberal city. However, congressional lines divide the city up and group people with the surrounding suburban and conservative Republican voters. Thus, a city that would normally vote Democratic ends up being represented by Republicans. Democrats, of course, can also do the same thing when they have control of state legislatures.

Gerrymandering’s Effect on Elections

Most scholars agree that gerrymandering diminishes the competition in elections.

Rather than allowing for new candidates to challenge congressional candidates, gerrymandering virtually assures that an incumbent (a politician currently in office) will be reelected. In California, in fact, only one congressional incumbent lost reelection from 2000 to 2010.

Lesson Summary

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing congressional districts in a way that favors one political party or interest group. The term was coined in 1812 when Elbridge Gerry redistricted Boston to benefit his political party.

The resulting district was in the shape of a salamander on the map.The two strategies of gerrymandering are ‘packing’, in which congressional districts are drawn in order to put as many people likely to vote for one party in the same district; and ‘cracking’, where people with a common interest are divided up and grouped with another majority. Gerrymandering usually has the effect of diminishing the competition in elections.

Learning Outcomes

Draw upon what you learn from this lesson on gerrymandering to accomplish these goals:

  • Define gerrymandering and understand why it is used
  • Sum up the origins of the term and the practice of ‘gerrymandering’
  • Specify the two types that exist
  • Discuss the effect of gerrymandering on elections

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