A brief history of gerrymandering

During my presentation tomorrow, I’ll be talking at length about several aspects of a political districting model. In fact, there’s so much to cover tomorrow that I ended up having to cut out all of the interesting anecdotes that I had originally planned to discuss. Rather than letting that information go to waste, however, I figured I could share it here instead.

As some of you are probably aware, political districting is an important problem because of something called “gerrymandering”.

If you don’t already know what gerrymandering is, I highly recommend watching the following video before continuing:

In essence, gerrymandering is the redrawing of congressional district lines in a strategic way that is usually done to maximize the advantage of a certain political party. If you follow politics at all, you’ve probably heard gerrymandering being discussed a few times, but what you might not know is how the term originated.

As it turns out, the term was first used in Massachusetts over 200 years ago in a situation that involved this guy:

elbridge gerry

This is Elbridge Gerry, 9th governor of Massachusetts and 5th vice president of the United States. In 1812, while serving as Massachusetts’ governor, Gerry signed a controversial redistricting plan that was highly partisan and contained a few “oddly shaped” districts like the one identified in red below:


original gerrymandering
As we’ll discuss in class tomorrow, a state’s political districts should ideally be as “geographically compact” as possible, so any long, sprawling districts like this one are often viewed with skepticism. The same was true in 1812. When the plan was announced, many newspapers and political opponents criticized its awkwardly shaped districts by drawing attention to the district in red that they said looked like a salamander.


salamander.jpgoriginal gerrymandering

This comparison quickly spawned the term “Gerry-mander”, and Gerry’s political opponents reprinted the term so frequently that it eventually became synonymous with “district manipulation”.

Today, there are far more sophisticated ways to measure the geographical compactness of a district, but these visual comparisons still persist. One of my personal favorites out of those I read while researching recent examples of gerrymandering comes from a judge in Maryland. He claimed the state’s third district looked “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate” across the state. This district can be seen in orange below:

maryland congressional districts.png

While you might not see salamanders or pterodactyls in these districts, the important point is that gerrymandering still remains relevant today, and operations research models offer one way to combat this problem.






2 thoughts on “A brief history of gerrymandering

  1. This is a nice post! I am looking forward to your presentation tomorrow, particularly the part about operations research helping out. Perhaps we will have another lively discussion about fairness. I have a quick question now: are all Congressional districts contiguous?


    1. According to the authors of the paper I’m presenting today, districts are supposed to be contiguous, but I’ve seen several that don’t appear to follow this rule. In the Maryland picture, for example, it looks like the red and orange districts have been separated into several pieces. Usually this is an indicator that gerrymandering has happened, and sometimes a judge will rule the districting plan unconstitutional as a result.


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