The process of dividing a particular state or territory into election districts in such a manner as to accomplish an unlawful purpose, such as to give one party a greater advantage.
State constitutions or amendments to those constitutions empower state legislatures, and sometimes state or federal courts, to apportion and reapportion election districts. This generally means that states may draw and redraw the lines around election districts for offices ranging from local to congressional. It can also mean that states may calculate and recalculate the numbers of representatives in election districts. Any form of unfair APPORTIONMENT may be called gerrymandering, but generally, a gerrymander is understood to be invalid redistricting.
Redistricting is usually used to adjust the populations of election districts to achieve equality in representation among those districts. Sometimes, however, it is used for unlawful ulterior motives. Then it crosses the line to become gerrymandering.
The classic example of a gerrymander is a legislative redistricting scheme designed to benefit the party in power. Assume that a state legislature has redrawn its voting districts to divide and fold all communities that vote predominantly Democratic into larger communities that vote Republican. This is a political gerrymander. Such redistricting decreases the likelihood of Democratic representation in the state legislature because the Democratic vote in each new district is diluted by the predominant Republican vote.
The term gerrymander was inspired by an 1812 Massachusetts redistricting scheme that favored the party of Governor Elbridge Gerry. Portraitist Gilbert C. Stuart noted that one new election district had the shape of a salamander. Stuart drew an outline of the district, put a salamander's head on one end, and called the creature a Gerrymander.
The gerrymander has been used by state legislatures ever since. It thrived all the way through the 1950s, when many southeastern states were reapportioned in an effort to weaken the voting power of African Americans. This usually involved the drawing of complex, irregularly shaped election districts. A legislature could divide and fold predominantly African American communities into surrounding districts with large blocs of white voters. Such schemes diluted the vote of African Americans, placed their representation in faraway communities, and effectively prevented African Americans from expressing their collective will in elections.
In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the first gerrymander scheme it reviewed, in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339, 81 S. Ct. 125, 5 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1960). In Gomillion, the Alabama legislature altered the city limits of Tuskegee to remove all but four of the city's 400 African American voters. It changed the city limits of Tuskegee, for election purposes, from a square to, according to the Court, "an uncouth twenty-eight-sided figure." According to the Court, the redistricting discriminated against African Americans and violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.
Gomillion did not establish that the drawing of election districts was always a proper matter for the courts. Before Gomillion, the Court had refused to review gerrymandering claims, holding that the issue of reapportionment was political and beyond the reach of the courts. The Court heard Gomillion only because the issue of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION lifted the controversy out of the arena...