It has become common lately for all partisan considerations in federal or state legislative redistricting to be labeled as “gerrymandering,” but this misuse of the word fails to make a distinction between what is legislative redistricting that is influenced by an acceptable degree of partisan consideration and gerrymandering, which is the result of excessive partisan motivation.
Gerrymander is a portmanteau of Elbridge Gerry and salamander. It refers to a legislative district drawn by the Founding Father that resembled a salamander. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing legislative districts that are oddly shaped with “tails,” such as possessed by salamanders, corridors or otherwise in such ways that make the districts not compact in order to include as many voters of the same political party of those drawing the boundaries as possible as residents of the district. Therefore, redistricting those residents who are voters of a particular party into the same district is not necessarily “gerrymandering,” unless the district is thus shaped.
By federal and state law, legislative districts must be contiguous. It may be desirable that districts be compact, but it makes sense to draw boundaries along lines that follow county or municipal boundaries or that include areas that have a common commercial interests or that share history or culture.
One of the aspects of culture is political ideology. Including as many voters as possible who share ideology in a legislative district gives those voters a greater opportunity to elect someone who would represent their political beliefs. Thus, redistricting along partisan lines can be a form of proportional representation within a state.
Drawing legislative boundaries along partisan lines, therefore, is not problematic, unless it causes a district not to be compact, to overlap too many political subdivisions or links people who do not share commercial interests, history or other cultural values. And it is not necessarily gerrymandering.
There is a temptation for lawmakers who have the responsibility to draw legislative boundaries to redistrict them in favor of incumbents generally, which can lead to districts that are gerrymandered in favor of both major parties, or at least drawn in order to provide incumbents with an electoral advantage. Districts should not be drawn primarily for such temporary considerations and not for self-serving legislators to give themselves or their immediate successors a competitive advantage for the next election.
Gerrymandering should be opposed, but the ideology and partisan affiliations of voters should not be dismissed as they are legitimate factors in drawing legislative boundaries.