As we get closer to the 2016 presidential elections there’s a word you’re probably going to hear a lot: “gerrymandering.
It has to do with congressional districts and how they’re divided up, and originally, it did have to do with a guy named Gerry —Elbridge Gerry.
As governor of Massachusetts in 1812, he signed a law to reshape one of the state’s congressional districts for his political advantage. It turns out the new shape looked a lot like a salamander. Hence the word: “gerrymander.”
To understand why the new shape was so important, you first have to know what a congressional district is. That brings us all the way back to the Constitutional Convention and what became known as the Great Compromise of 1787.
The writers from the small states (New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maryland, and New York) came to a political agreement with the writers from the large states (Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts) to create two chambers of Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives.
In the Senate every state gets two senators. So the small states have the same power as the big states. In the House, however, every state gets a number of representatives related to how many people live there. And every representative gets a congressional district.
How are those districts decided on?
That’s up to state officials, usually lawmakers, in a process called redistricting, or redrawing the districts. The lawmakers in charge of redistricting are members of political parties. In most states the party with the majority gets the power to redistrict. So when they go to the redrawing board, they usually want to shape the districts to favor their party in the next election. And that’s what we call gerrymandering.
Some states have tried to take the politics out of redrawing districts and put in place a number of reforms, such as instituting independent commissions so any political party is not in charge of drawing their own districts. The United States Supreme Court ruled last year that such commissions are constitutional. In most states, however, redistricting continues to be done by the majority party.
So while you may never use the term “gerrymandering,” odds are it still happens in your state. So, the next time you’re at a cocktail party or streaming some of our live Yahoo political coverage and you hear the word “gerrymandering,” at least you can say, “Now I get it.”