In March 1812, the Boston Gazette ran a political cartoon depicting “a new species of monster”: “The Gerry-mander.” The forked-tongue creature was shaped like a contorted Massachusetts voting district that the state’s Jeffersonian Republicans had drawn to benefit their own party. Governor (and future vice president) Elbridge Gerry signed off on his party’s redistricting plan in February, unwittingly cementing his place in the United States lexicon of underhanded political tricks.
Federalist newspapers in Massachusetts reprinted the cartoon with its portmanteau of “Gerry” and “salamander,” helping the new word to take off. Although the pronunciation has changed over time—Gerry’s name is pronounced like “Gary,” but Americans now pronounce the word bearing his name like “Jerry”-mander—the meaning has mostly remained the same: gerrymandering is when politicians redraw voting districts to benefit their political party.
Gerrymandering Existed Before It Had a Name
The practice of manipulating voting districts to secure political power predates the fearsome Gerry-mander. In 18th-century England, political operatives created “rotten boroughs” with only a few eligible voters, making it easy for politicians to buy the residents’ votes and gain seats in Parliament.
After English colonists founded the United States, gerrymandering “began almost immediately,” says Thomas Hunter, a political science professor at the University of West Georgia. There’s evidence that Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina drew districts to benefit some candidates over others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Still, these gerrymandered districts were relatively “normal”-looking compared to what would come later.
“I think that what they did in Massachusetts in 1812 really was on steroids compared to what had gone on before,” Hunter says.
That’s because the 1812 Massachusetts gerrymandering was more brazen about contorting districts into odd shapes to maximize a party’s gain. Even though the Jeffersonian Republicans received roughly 49 percent of the vote, they won 29 of the 40 seats in the state Senate.
This led to a backlash against the state’s Jeffersonian Republican Party (not to confused with the Republican Party, established in 1854). The next year, the Federalists regained control of the state legislature. Ironically, it was the Jeffersonian Republicans’ thinly-drawn districts that allowed the party to lose them with only a small shift in political opinion. Once in power, the Federalists redrew the districts.
The 1813 election inspired “cartoons showing the original Gerry-mander, but now showing it as a skeleton,” Hunter says. These cartoons suggested that the election “had killed off the monster.”
Gerrymandering Increases When Black Men Win the Vote
Though the Massachusetts monster was dead, the practice of gerrymandering continued for over two centuries, usually increasing or decreasing depending on the intensity of two-party competition at the time. There were fewer obvious instances of gerrymandering during the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” from 1815 to 1825. Yet gerrymandering increased in the 1830s, after politicians established the rival Democratic and Whig parties.
When Black men won the right to vote after the Civil War, gerrymandering was “taken up a notch,” Hunter says. Southern states in particular drew districts to maximize the electoral advantage for the Democratic Party, which most white southern voters supported, over the Republican Party, which most Black voters supported.
This was when states started to draw more “long stringy districts,” he says. The goal of these was usually to concentrate as many Black voters as possible into one district so that the rest of the districts would have a white majority.
In 1874, South Carolina introduced the first non-contiguous voting district, but had to change back to contiguous districts for the 1876 election because the U.S. House of Representatives told the state it wouldn’t seat any more members elected under such a system. In 1882, South Carolina created a “boa constrictor” district that concentrated Black Americans—who made up the majority of the state’s population—into one winding district, so that every other district had a white majority.
Gerrymandering in the south fell off in the early 20th century due to the success of suppressing Black voters through poll taxes, the threat of lynching and other insidious tactics. Because the only people who could vote in southern states were white and usually Democrats, the white Democratic establishment didn’t feel it needed to manipulate districts to maintain its majority.
1960s 'Redistricting Revolution' Challenges Gerrymandering
In fact, after the 1900 census, some states didn’t change their districts at all until the 1960s. As more people moved to cities—particularly Black Americans and immigrants—these states maintained districts that gave disproportionate power to white, rural, non-immigrant Americans.
The U.S. Supreme Court changed this in the 1960s with a series of court decisions known as the “redistricting revolution.” Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court ruled that all state voting districts must have roughly equal populations. In addition, states must adjust their federal congressional districts after every 10-year census so that each of the 435 members in the U.S. House of Representatives represents roughly the same number of people.
Combined with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected Black Americans’ right to vote, these Supreme Court decisions ensured voters were more evenly represented in their state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. (The court singled out the U.S. Senate as a unique institution whose members didn’t need to represent the same number of people.) But within a couple of decades, computer technology made it easier for political operatives to strategically map districts to benefit their party under the new rules.
“You’ve got districting schemes after the 1990s that were completely unlike anything you’d ever seen before,” Hunter says. North Carolina’s 12th District became known as the “I-85 district” because it basically ran along the interstate highway, at one point growing narrower than the highway itself.
Modern forms of gerrymandering continues, says Hunter, who adds, "In some ways it’s politicians picking their voters as opposed to voters picking their politicians.”