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Redistricting and Gerrymandering in the U.S.

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By: Dr. Anne Cizmar, associate professor, EKU Department of Government & Economics

According to the U.S. Constitution, the government must conduct a decennial census to count all people living in the United States. The census statistics are then used to compute the congressional representation for each state. For many years, as the population of the U.S. grew at every census, so too did the size of the House of Representatives. The House had only 65 members at first; by 1911 the House had swelled to 435 members, and shortly thereafter the size of the House was fixed at 435 members by congressional statute. This means that when the census statistics are released every ten years, the House seats must be reapportioned by the new population numbers. Since the number of representatives is fixed at 435 members, some states must lose seats in the House in order for faster-growing states to pick up seats. In recent years, “rust belt” states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Illinois have lost seats to “sunbelt” states in the South and West, including Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Arizona. This means that the map of political power has been shifting in the U.S.

Within states, people also move between districts. States are permitted to change their district boundaries as part of this process. There are very few rules governing the drawing of district boundaries. First, congressional districts cannot cross state lines—each district must be contained in a single state. Second, boundaries must respect the “one person, one vote” principle (established by the Supreme Court in Wesberry v. Sanders). Districts must be of approximately equal population so that each person in the state has equal congressional representation. Finally, districts must not be drawn to dilute racial minority representation (as established by the Supreme Court in Thornburg v. Gingles).

The district-drawing process is often very political. When a congressional district’s shape is extensively manipulated to benefit one party, incumbent, or group, this is referred to as “gerrymandering.” The term gerrymandering was coined in 1812 after the Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, promoted redrawing the state legislature’s district boundaries so that one district looked like a salamander. A newspaper cartoon blended Governor Gerry’s name with salamander, creating the term “gerrymander.” A picture of the original gerrymandered district can be seen here.

Over the years, the Supreme Court occasionally has ruled on district boundaries. The Supreme Court will be looking at this issue again this session and deciding whether drawing congressional district boundaries to benefit one party—partisan gerrymandering—is unconstitutional. Some view drawing district boundaries as a “right” for the party who is victorious in state politics, seeing it as the spoils of war. Others are concerned that members of government are essentially picking their own voters rather than the voters selecting them. The Supreme Court decision on this case may have far reaching implications for upcoming congressional elections.

Dr. Anne Cizmar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government & Economics at Eastern Kentucky University. Her teaching and research areas focus on the presidency, campaigns and elections, and voting behavior.

Published on September 26, 2017