Drawing boundaries: the problem of gerrymandering in the US

briffault.300 (1)Recently, courts at both the federal and state level have been forced to get involved in the process of defining electoral borders in the US, as organisations across the country have started legal claims designed to overturn what they see as unfair electoral maps. Richard Briffault explains what is meant by gerrymandering, how it has been challenged in the past and what the Supreme Court is currently being asked to decide.

Identifying the problem

Gerrymandering refers to the practice of manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts to favour particular candidates, parties or interest groups. It arises out of –and has become increasingly significant in American politics because of – five factors.

First, members of the United States House of Representatives and of the chambers of both houses of all state legislatures are elected from single-member districts with the winner selected on a first-past-the-post basis. In other words, there is no proportional representation.

Second, electoral constituencies must be redrawn every ten years in light of the decennial census so that the districts have relatively equal populations.

Third, legislative redistricting is typically undertaken by partisan officials. In most states, the state legislature redistricts itself as well as the state’s congressional districts. A number of states have created so-called independent redistricting commissions, but most of those commissions consist of partisan officials, such as the legislative leaders of the major parties, or their appointees. Only a handful of states use truly non-partisan or independent commissions.

Fourth, until now there has been no federal constitutional constraint on partisan gerrymandering. Continue reading