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The baneful role of gerrymandering in US history

Published on 04 April 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

In the process of setting electoral districts, gerrymandering is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan-advantaged districts.[1]

Of course, manipulating district boundaries is a wide-spread partisan political practice. It is my contention, however, that this phenomenon has been at the core of state formation in the US and heavily influenced its history ever since. Musing on the hidden consequences may help understand the current predicament of the country.

363 The mother of all gerrymandering – the 3/5 rule in the US Constitution Now largely forgotten, the 3/5 compromise was set out in the US Constitution:

“The Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise reached between delegates from southern states and those from northern states during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention. The debate was over whether, and if so, how, slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes. The issue was important, as this population number would then be used to determine the number of seats that the state would have in the US House of Representatives as well as the Electoral College for the next ten years. The effect was to give the southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored (but fewer than if counts of slaves and free persons had been lumped together), allowing the slaveholder interests to dominate largely the government of the United States until 1861.”[2] The 13th and 14th Amendment nullified the Compromise.

It is probably fair to say that this compromise, together with the Connecticut Compromise,[3] made the approval of the US Constitution possible. The predominance of slave interests in the House led to Anti-Slavery Gag Rules in the House during the period 1836-44[4] and the approval of rotten compromises over the admission of states to the Union ensued. These compromises aimed to protect the 3/5 rule as the country expanded.

In effect, the slow deliberation over the “good life” of the country (with/without slavery) was wrapped into a procedural rule and reduced to a yes/no on the latter. There could be no evolutionary compromise over the rule.[5] Polarization ensued, which was resolved by civil war.

From Jim Crow to scientific gerrymandering (and more)

The usefulness of manipulating procedural rules in achieving political ends was a lesson unlikely to be forgotten. The next avatar were the Jim Crow laws[6] which achieved de facto discrimination while seemingly being evenhanded. Again, Jim Crow ruled by indirection: formal equality knowingly imposed on an unequal situation.

Though eliminated from the US Constitution, gerrymandering was widely practiced at the state level. It has now become a science.[7] The system has become entrenched. According to Lynn Westmoreland, the Republican redistricting vice chair in the House, this ritual mapmaking is “the nastiest form of politics that there is.” Gerrymandering just about ensures a Republican majority in the House of Representatives at every election. Pushback against extremes is slow:[8] State Supreme Courts may have to intervene to review the redistricting proposals.

Partisanship has also infected election administration – the most blatant case being the chads in Florida 1999. The system’s dysfunctions are significant.[9] Overall, the US fares poorly in international comparisons: The Perception of Electoral Integrity Index for 2012-2015 puts the US with 62 at the bottom of the second-tier “high” scale (60-70) – the worst score among Western countries.[10]

Has gerrymandering shaped US political culture in any way?

Historians will argue over the effect of gerrymandering on the history of the US. My conjecture is that historians underestimate its import. To me at least, justice nullified is far worse and galling than justice denied. It rubs in my helplessness by confronting me with naked power.

I would consider the question of whether gerrymandering has also helped shape current political culture in the country as interesting. Again, my conjecture is that gerrymandering has played a role, in ways that are subtle, or often silent, yet highly relevant.

The process of formalizing all knowledge to the exclusion of any tacit knowledge is self-defeating.


Procedures are meant to organize political processes so that they can unfold in time in an orderly fashion.[11] Procedures are enablers meant to be as neutral as possible between outcomes. When procedures are grossly misused for partisan advantage, they become akin to rents in economics – unearned (political) incomes arising from a legal discontinuity. Like all rents, legal discontinuities are divisive. Devoid of content, rents become a dispute of the wills or a test of power and soon become shouting matches. By shielding the haves, captive procedures breed arrogance in them and rage among the have-nots. Gerrymandering plays a critical role in shaping the political process in the US, and it is permissible to see it as a major and divisive rent factor.

Procedural discussions background the complex substance and spread a veil of ignorance over it. The procedural point becomes symbolic and abstract, but all-encompassing and reductive. A legalistic approach ensues, in which those arguing from substance face an uphill battle. One wonders whether the legalism that bedevils the US political system might also have its origins in a habit of substituting procedure for substance, a habit going back to the original Constitution.

Gerrymandering produces “safe seats” and is akin to “political segregation.” This phenomenon has unexpected consequences: “Political extremism is often a product of group polarization, and social segregation is a useful tool for producing polarization.”[12] The political process within a safe seat no longer needs to be inclusive or acknowledge diversity. The opposition no longer has a voice. Under such circumstances, politicians vie for prominence within the club by becoming more extreme in their views – not unlike peacocks.

Is it a fluke that the two most extreme GOP hopefuls to come up through the party ranks – Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – come from states that have about the worst record in gerrymandering?


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-Fifths_Compromise. For a scholarly treatment, see e.g.: Leonard L. RICHARDS (2000): The slaver power. The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connecticut_Compromise

[4] Richard H. SEWELL (1976): Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, 1837–1860. New York: Oxford University Press

[5] The indirect way of dealing with the issue of slaver allowed for myths to emerge.

[6] C. Vann WOODWARD (1974): The strange career of Jim Crow. Oxford University Press, New York. Also: Michelle ALEXANDER (2012): The new Jim Crow. Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press, New York.

[7] Robert DRAPER (2012): The league od dangerous mapmakers. The Atlantic, October.

[8] State having a history of election discrimination are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that electoral maps be approved by either a federal court or the Justice Department. But the targeted discrimination is racial, not political.

[9] See the Reports of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration: https://www.supportthevoter.gov/

[10] https://bit.ly/1Y6L5QR

[11] Paul PIERSON (2004): Politics in time. History, institutions, and social analysis. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[12] Cass H. SUNSTEIN (2009): Going to extremes. How like minds unite and divide. Oxford University press, Oxford.

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