In March 1812, the Boston Gazette ran a political cartoon depicting “a new species of monster”: “The Gerry-mander.” The forked-tongue creature was shaped like a contorted Massachusetts voting district that the state’s Jeffersonian Republicans had drawn to benefit their own party. Governor (and future vice president) Elbridge Gerry signed off on his party’s redistricting plan in February, unwittingly cementing his place in the United States lexicon of underhanded political tricks. Federalist newspapers in Massachusetts reprinted the cartoon with its portmanteau of “Gerry” and “salamander,” helping the new word to take off.
The practice of manipulating voting districts to secure political power predates the fearsome Gerry-mander. In 18th-century England, political operatives created “rotten boroughs” with only a few eligible voters, making it easy for politicians to buy the residents’ votes and gain seats in Parliament. After English colonists founded the United States, gerrymandering began almost immediately. There’s evidence that Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina drew districts to benefit some candidates over others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Still, these gerrymandered districts were relatively “normal”-looking compared to what would come later.
That’s because the 1812 Massachusetts gerrymandering was more brazen about contorting districts into odd shapes to maximize a party’s gain. Even though the Jeffersonian Republicans received roughly 49 percent of the vote, they won 29 of the 40 seats in the state Senate. The next year, the Federalists regained control of the state legislature. Once in power, the Federalists redrew the districts.
When Black men won the right to vote after the Civil War, gerrymandering became much more pervasive and sinister. Southern states in particular drew districts to maximize the electoral advantage for the Democratic Party, which most white southern voters supported, over the Republican Party, which most Black voters supported. The goal of these was usually to concentrate as many Black voters as possible into one district so that the rest of the districts would have a white majority.
Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, in the 1960’s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all state voting districts must have roughly equal populations. In addition, states must adjust their federal congressional districts after every 10-year census so that each of the 435 members in the U.S. House of Representatives represents roughly the same number of people. Combined with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected Black Americans’ right to vote, these Supreme Court decisions ensured voters were more evenly represented in their state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Unfortunately, our current political climate where the Republican party will do anything (except hold to their traditional values and purpose) to remain in power, we see a revitalization of abusive Gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court recently barred federal courts from requiring states to fix their newly adopted, but unlawful, congressional maps before the 2022 midterm congressional elections. This is paving the way for the same groups that attempted violent overthrow of the government to complete their “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [us] under absolute Despotism….” Such redistricting will ultimately lead to racial gerrymandering, which can diminish the power of racial groups and should be considered unconstitutional or unlawful under federal law. It will definitely result in partisan gerrymandering, which gives an advantage to the minority Republican party.
The court rests its mandated indolence on the Purcell principle, which claims electoral changes occurring too close to an election will confuse voters. The court has not defined how close to an election is too close to an election but Mitch McConnel has made it very clear. When that delay benefits the Republican party any length of time is too close to the election and when it hurts their party no such moratorium exists. That is how the stacked the court and that is how they plan to stack the Congress.
The court’s choice to allow unlawful congressional redistricting plans to stand will likely affect who gets elected to the House of Representatives. How districts are drawn may determine which candidates run and which candidates win. A state’s gerrymandered districts yield a different congressional delegation than if the districts were not gerrymandered. If gerrymandered districts yield more highly partisan representatives, the Supreme Court’s actions will lead to a House that is more highly partisan and less likely to produce bipartisan legislation. This will ensure that the current situation of national chaos and civic decline will continue in America. The Supreme Court’s mandate to lower courts to take time to decide gerrymandering cases may appear procedural. However, it may have real, measurable effects in our lives as we continue to see our civil liberties and equal rights eliminated.