In March 1812, the Boston Gazette produced a political cartoon depicting “a new species of monster”: “The Gerry-mander”. The forked-tongue creature was shaped like a contorted Massachusetts electoral district that the Jeffersonian Republicans in the state had designed for the benefit of their own party. Governor (and future Vice President) Elbridge Gerry approved his party’s redistribution plan in February, unwittingly strengthening its place in America’s lexicon of underhand political tricks.
The Massachusetts Federalist newspapers reprinted the cartoon with its suitcase of “Gerry” and “Salamander,” helping the new word take off. Although the pronunciation has changed over time – Gerry’s name is pronounced as ‘Gary’, but Americans now pronounce the word bearing his name as ‘Jerry’ – the meaning has remained virtually the same: gerrymandering is when politicians redesign electoral districts to benefit their political party.
Gerrymandering existed before it had a name
The practice of manipulating constituencies for political power predates the dreaded Gerry-mander. In 18th century England, political agents created “rotten boroughs” with only a few eligible voters, which made it easy for politicians to buy residents’ votes and secure seats in Parliament.
After English settlers founded the United States, gerrymandering “began almost immediately,” says Thomas Hunter, professor of political science at the University of West Georgia. There is evidence that Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina attracted districts in favor of some candidates over others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Yet these gerrymandered neighborhoods were relatively “normal” compared to what would come later.
“I think what they did in Massachusetts in 1812 was really on steroids compared to what had happened before,” says Hunter.
This is because the Massachusetts gerrymandering of 1812 was more brazen in contorting oddly shaped districts to maximize party gain. Even though Jeffersonian Republicans won about 49% of the vote, they won 29 of the 40 seats in the state Senate.
This led to a backlash against the state’s Republican Jeffersonian Party (not to be confused with the Republican Party, established in 1854). The following year, the Federalists regained control of the state legislature. Ironically, it was the barely-drawn neighborhoods of Jefferson’s Republicans that allowed the party to lose them with just a small change in political opinion. Once in power, the federalists redesigned the districts.
The 1813 election inspired “cartoons showing the original Gerry-mander, but now showing him as a skeleton,” says Hunter. These cartoons suggested that the election “killed the monster.”
Gerrymandering rises when black men win the vote
Although the Massachusetts Monster is dead, the practice of gerrymandering continued for over two centuries, generally increasing or decreasing depending on the intensity of the two-way competition at the time. There were fewer obvious examples of gerrymandering during the so-called “era of good feelings” of 1815 to 1825. Yet gerrymandering increased in the 1830s, when politicians created the rival Democratic and Whig parties.
When black men won the vote after the Civil War, gerrymandering was “taken up a notch,” Hunter says. Southern states in particular drew up districts to maximize the electoral advantage of the Democratic Party, which most white voters in the South supported, over the Republican Party, which most black voters supported.
READ MORE: How the ‘Lincoln Party’ won the once-democratic South
That’s when states started drawing more “long and long districts,” he says. The purpose of the latter was generally to concentrate as many black voters as possible in a single district so that the rest of the districts had a white majority.
In 1874, South Carolina introduced the first non-contiguous electoral district, but had to revert to contiguous districts for the 1876 election because the United States House of Representatives told the state it would not more members elected under such a system would sit. In 1882, South Carolina created a “boa constrictor” district that concentrated black Americans – who made up the majority of the state’s population – into a winding district, so that all other districts had a white majority. .
Gerrymandering in the south fell in the early part of the 20th century due to the success of suppressing black voters through election taxes, the threat of lynching, and other insidious tactics. Because the only people who could vote in the southern states were whites and generally Democrats, the white Democratic establishment did not feel that districts had to be manipulated to maintain their majority.
WATCH: Gerrymandering explained
Challenges of the ‘redistribution revolution’ of the 1960s Gerrymandering
In fact, after the 1900 census, some states did not change districts at all until the 1960s. As more and more people moved to cities – especially black Americans and immigrants – these states maintained districts that gave disproportionate power to white, rural, and non-immigrant Americans.
The United States Supreme Court changed that in the 1960s with a series of court decisions known as the “Redistribution Revolution”. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court ruled that all state electoral districts must have roughly equal populations. In addition, states must adjust their congressional federal districts after each decennial census so that each of the 435 members of the United States House of Representatives represents roughly the same number of people.
READ MORE: Supreme Court in the 1960s forced states to make their constituencies fairer
Combined with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected the right to vote of black Americans, these Supreme Court decisions ensured more equal representation of voters in their state legislatures and in the United States House of Representatives ( the Court designated the United States Senate as a single institution whose members did not need to represent the same number of people.) But in the space of a few decades, computer technology allowed political agents to strategically map districts for the benefit of their party under the new rules.
“You have district plans after the 1990s that were completely different from anything you’ve ever seen before,” says Hunter. North Carolina’s 12th District became known as “District I-85” because it essentially ran along the interstate highway, at a time narrower than the highway itself.
Modern forms of gerrymandering continue, says Hunter, who adds, “In a way, it’s the politicians who choose their constituents rather than the constituents who choose their politicians.”