Gerrymandering is the practice of altering electoral district boundaries to influence the outcome of election results. It is an issue most often associated with single member first-past-the-post electoral systems in which the district boundaries can have a crucial impact of the number of persons elected by a party to a legislature. Gerrymandering for the purpose of reducing the political influence of a minority group is illegal in the United States under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, however the United States Supreme Court has ruled that gerrymandering for the purpose of increasing or reducing the influence of political party is not illegal.
One form of gerrymandering occurs when the boundaries of a constituency are changed in order to eliminate some area with a high concentration of people who vote for a certain political party. Another form occurs when an area with a high concentration of voters for a certain party is split among several districts, insuring that the party has a small majority in several districts rather than a large majority in one. Often, such gerrymandering is held to redress a long-overlooked imbalance, as when creating a black majority district.
Yet another method is to attempt to move the population within the existing boundaries. This occurred in Westminster, in the United Kingdom. The local government was controlled by the Conservative party, and the leader of the council, with others conspired to only offer state funded housing to people who were thought to vote Conservative. The council leader was Dame Shirley Porter, who lost in court, and was forced to pay millions of pounds in punitive damages. Recently (December 2001), an appeal court has ordered that she will remain liable for the full amount of the damages.
The possibility of gerrymandering makes the process of redistricting extremely politically contentious within the United States. Under U.S. law, districts for members of the House of Representatives are redrawn every ten years following each census and it is common practice for state legislative boundaries to be redrawn at the same time. What usually results is a contentious fight between the political parties to insure that the districts most advantageous to them are adopted.
Gerrymandering is named after an early Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry. Two reporters were looking at the new election map and one commented that one of the new districts looked just like a salamander. The other retorted that it looked like a Gerrymander. The name stuck and is now used by political scientists everywhere.