Gerrymandering Terminology

I read a political column where someone blamed gerrymandering for the 2016 presidential election.

Gerrymandering has a specific definition. It’s not supposed to refer to every policy in which one group has a disproportionate influence in elections (although this confusion might explain some arguments I’ve had about gerrymandering in the past.)

Gerrymandering refers to people manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor a particular group (usually a political party.) The only cases this could apply with the electoral college are with the two states that reward electors to the winners of the popular vote in a congressional district (this would be Maine and New Hampshire.) The other 533 electoral votes are based on how a state votes, and those boundaries were not developed for gain in presidential elections.

The terminology matters since the solutions to gerrymandering as commonly understood do not address the problems of natural advantage for one group. If there’s a discussion in which some people are talking about one thing (gerrymandering) and others are talking about something else (changing government institutions to be more democratic) it’s going to result in people talking past one another, especially since the latter requires changes that are more difficult to implement—the Senate is biased against cities, but changing the structure of the Senate requires a new constitutional convention, since it can’t be done with an amendment.

I’m not going to pretend that Republicans have any interest in changes to the system that will reduce to their political power. They’re not going to worry about those inequalities, any more than Democrats will worry about political inequalities that favor them (preferential treatment by the media, a higher population density in areas that favor them.)

But even those who want Democrats to do better in elections, should be careful to use the correct terminology. Otherwise, Republicans could solve the stated problem, but not the inequality.

If there’s a lot of discussion about gerrymandering as something that gives Republicans an unfair advantage (due to their 2010 midterms, they did gain a few congressional seats thanks to control of redistricting in key states, but it comes down to a few states) Republicans could offer an expansive solution with a series of laws taking control of political boundaries out of the hands of elected officials, and insisting that political districts be compact. This would serve to insulate the party from a wave election in Democrats’ favor in which they might be able to gerrymander in their benefit (and Democrats need this more than Republicans do due to the Republican geographic sorting advantage, which is exemplified by the results of fivethirtyeight’s redistricting tools.)

The Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering is out of the hands of the federal courts, but the bigger reason this might diminish as a question is that Democrats took back the House, largely because suburban white women have swing towards the party.



About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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