Making Democracy Work

What is "gerrymandering"?

What is "gerrymandering," how does it happen, and what are its consequences for representative government?

What is "gerrymandering"?

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral districts to favor the election of representatives from one political party.

The term is a combination of "gerry," for Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (early 1800s), who used redistricting to his advantage, and "salamander," the shape of some electoral districts. You can see the "salamander" in the 21st Senate District of Virginia. It splits Montgomery and Roanoke counties and the town of Christiansburg.

21st Senate District Virginia
21st Senate District
Image from the Virginia Public Access Project

How does gerrymandering happen?

Majority parties can draw the electoral districts of the state. According to Redistricting: In Search of a Better Solution, gerrymandering "allows majority-party legislators to draw enough uncompetitive districts and pick enough of their own voters to keep lopsided partisan majorities." The authors of this article, Bob Gibson and Matt Scoble, observe that "Virginia is ranked as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country both on the congressional and state levels based on lack of compactness and contiguity of its districts." Democrats and Republicans are equally at fault.

What are the consequences of gerrymandering?

Gerrymandered legislative districts can predetermine an election's outcome.

As a consequence of gerrymandering

  • districts are not necessarily compact, and geographic areas are divided
  • voters lose choices as elections are not competitive
  • elected officials are less responsive to all their constituents, favoring the party base that elects them
  • legislators who want to represent everyone are often stymied by distances and different issues in various areas of their districts
  • partisanship increases
  • democratic government suffers