The political cartoon that led to the coining of the term "Gerrymander." The district depicted was created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists in 1812.
The news media today are full of stories about efforts across the United States to draw new state and federal legislative districts following the 2010 Census. Even the U.S. Supreme Court waded into that process very early, by agreeing to hear a legal challenge to a congressional redistricting scheme in Texas.
All of this news reflects the truly unprecedented levels of contention associated with the redistricting process this time. As soon as state legislative leaders propose new district maps, opposition swells, culminating in lawsuits and, at times, judicial rulings requiring legislatures to try again. The overall impression is of a process that has spun out of control, driven by narrow partisanship rather than public interest.
"Gerrymandering," the practice of drawing legislative district boundaries so as to maximize partisan advantage, is far from new. Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor whose name literally became synonymous with the practice, worked his magic to create a salamander-shaped district over two hundred years ago.
The modern era of legislative redistricting began more recently, however, when the U. S. Supreme Court decided a case known as Baker v. Carr in 1962.
The case involved a lawsuit brought by a man named Charles Baker, a Republican who lived in Shelby County, Tennessee, where Memphis is located. He sued the Tennessee Secretary of State, Joe Carr, because the Tennessee state legislature had not redistricted since the 1900 Census.
Thanks to population shifts over the preceding sixty years, Baker's district in Shelby County had roughly ten times as many residents as some of the rural districts with equal representation in the state legislature. The Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-2, found for Baker. In so doing, the Court announced that redistricting was an issue a court could resolve, thereby over-ruling earlier decisions that courts were not competent to decide such political questions.
Two years later, in a pair of decisions known as Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Court found that the Constitution required all states to redistrict after each decennial census, and produce equal population districts for all state legislative and federal (i.e. congressional) seats except for those in the U.S. Senate.
These Supreme Court decisions produced a political revolution that dramatically changed the practice of American politics. We continue to grapple with the results today.