Gerrymandering in the United States

From the lecture series: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The census determines how many congressional districts each state should receive, and the state legislatures decide how to draw the lines for each of those districts. However, the redrawing of congressional district lines is a controversial issue. Read about gerrymandering in the United States.

Map of the US made up of colourful puzzle pieces.
After a census, the government decides how many congressional districts each state should receive. (Image: Tokarchuk Andrii/Shutterstock)

What Is Gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering refers to the redrawing of congressional district lines in a way that advantages one group over another.

While state lines are not subject to revision every 10 years, like district lines are, the US Senate has a much more serious problem with unbalanced apportionment than the House does.

Learn more about civil rights.

Representation of States in the US Senate

In the Senate, 50% of all senators represent only 18% of the US population. In fact, half the US population lives in just nine states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina.

These nine states, of course, have just 18 senators, altogether. But it’s important to remember that the Senate was not designed to be apportioned equally.

Reason for Gerrymandering

Historically, states have gerrymandered districts primarily for the goal of suppressing the voting power of racial minorities, particularly African Americans.

From the 1880s until 1965, African Americans in the South were systematically excluded from representation through various forms of exclusion, including gerrymandering.

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Cracking and Packing

There are two main strategies that states used to redraw district lines in ways that disadvantaged African Americans. They are commonly known as cracking and packing.

In cracking, districts are drawn such that African American communities are broken into multiple districts, so they do not form a majority, even in areas where African Americans outnumber whites.

In packing, African Americans are concentrated in a single district, even in areas where the population is large enough to warrant majorities in several districts.

Learn more about the judicial system’s organization.

Voting Rights Act

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act became law and enfranchised millions of voters who had been denied the right to vote.

One particular part of the Voting Rights Act, known as Section 5, applied specifically to states that had a history of racial discrimination. Section 5 required these states to get the approval of the US Department of Justice anytime the state sought to make changes in its voting laws.

The US President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Prior to 1965, suffrage was very low for southern African Americans, even non-existent in some places. (Image: Yoichi Okamoto/Public domain)

This arrangement both respected federalism and provided more federal government oversight to states that had historical records of racial discrimination. The strength of democracy dramatically improved in the South during this period.

Strategy of ‘Majority-Minority’

Things changed again in 1986 after the Supreme Court ruled that states could use a strategy known as ‘majority-minority’.

In this strategy, states would purposefully redraw district lines in a way that increased the likelihood that African American voters would form majorities. The strategy had the added side-effect of increasing the number of African American members of Congress, as these majority-minority districts were more likely to elect representatives who were African American. The strategy worked in this intended way for a short while.

In the mid-1990s, however, there were two Supreme Court cases that ended the practice of majority-minority districts. The court ruled that race cannot be the only factor in redrawing district lines.

Racial Gerrymandering in 2013

Racial gerrymandering changed yet again in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was no longer needed. States that had previously been required to get federal Justice Department pre-clearance for any changes to their voting laws would no longer be required to do so.

However, since that decision, a number of states have enacted voter identification laws. These laws come in different forms, but generally require voters to present a government issued ID when voting.

Voter Identification Laws

A woman staff person is shown checking the ID of a man at a polling station with other voters and the US flag in the background.
Voter identification laws seemingly reduce fraud. (Image: vesperstock/Shutterstock)

Ostensibly, these laws reduce fraud in voting and prevent people who do not have voting rights from voting, like non-citizens.

Altogether, 35 of 50 states require or request some form of ID to vote.

However, there is little evidence that voter fraud, of the type these laws are intended to prevent, is at all prevalent. In addition, there is reasonable evidence that voter ID laws may suppress the votes of racial minorities, particularly among the Latino population.

Learn more about polarization.

Suffrage for Southern African Americans

Prior to 1965, suffrage was very low for southern African Americans, even non-existent in some places. Between 1965 and 1986, voting rights improved dramatically.

From 1986 to the mid-1990s, the strongest protections were in place for African American southern voters, but since then, this began to decline. Since 2013, voting rights have declined further.

Trade-off between Electoral Security and Expansive Suffrage

When it comes down to it, there is a trade-off to be made between electoral security and expansive suffrage.

If laws make it incredibly easy for people to vote, the probability that votes may be compromised increases. However, if we increase electoral security and make it harder for people to vote, fewer people will.

Partisan Gerrymandering

In recent years, partisan gerrymandering has garnered more attention and been the subject of more court cases than racial gerrymandering.

The concerns raised in these cases is parallel to concerns raised in the racial gerrymandering cases, but instead of racial minorities being disadvantaged by drawing-up district lines, in this case it’s one political party or another that claims the disadvantage.

Technically, the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that district lines that were drawn to advantage one political party over another were in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. However, in 2019, the Supreme Court held that partisan gerrymandering is a political question, not a judicial one.

Over time, the United States has had a varied record on the manipulation of district lines to achieve particular goals. Often these goals are dictated by majorities, but sometimes district line drawing was used to explicitly to protect minorities.

Overall, gerrymandering can be a problem, but it may not be as much of a problem as many people perceive it to be.

Common Questions about Gerrymandering in the United States

 Q: What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering refers to the redrawing of congressional district lines in a way that advantages one group over another.

Q: When did the Voting Rights Act became law?

The Voting Rights Act became law in 1965.

Q: Why are there Voter Identification Laws in the United States?

Voter Identification Laws seemingly reduce fraud in voting and prevent people who do not have voting rights from voting, like non-citizens.

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