Two blocks to the left, two blocks to the right, back it up, then jump: gerrymandering! Why do political strategist do this dance? To make sure their political party has the highest chance of winning a district during an election. To understand this process, let’s look at the origins of the word.
The word Gerrymander is a combination of “salamander” and the last name of Massachussets Gov. Elbridge “Gerry“. In 1812, Gov. Gerry signed a redistricting law that was designed to help his political party. On March 26, 1812, the Boston Gazette printed the word “gerrymander” along with this cartoon which represented described a newly formed district in Essex County. The new district’s shape resembled a salamander.
One story of gerrymandering that had a huge impact on public policy is the story of C. G. Gomillion, et al., Petitioners, v. Phil M. Lightfoot, as Mayor of the City of Tuskegee, et al. Charles Gomillion was dean of students and chair of the social sciences department at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, AL. In 1957, he found out that several white citizens were promoting a bill in the state legislature to gerrymander in order to ensure election victories by whites in 1960.
According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama History, Gomillion, along with other community activists, went to the City Council, wrote to the County Commission, lobbied the AL state legislature, and published an open letter in the Montgomery Advertiser. Despite these efforts, Local Act No. 140, introduced by Samuel M. Engelhardt Jr.(executive secretary of the White Citizens’ Council of AL and a white supremacist), passed in the state legislature in 1957. It changed the boundaries of the city from a square shape to a figure with 28 sides, removing from the city the historically black college Tuskegee Institute/University and all but four or five of the nearly 400 black voters, but none of more than 1,300 white residents. Gomillion and the Tuskegee Civic Association treated this first setback as an opportunity to institute legal proceedings and thereby to mobilize political action.
Gomillion and other petitioners, black citizens of Alabama and residents of Tuskegee, alleged that the act violated the “due process” and “equal protection” clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. They claimed that the gerrymandering disfranchised black voters; therefore, the act was discriminatory.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama first dismissed the case, ruling that the state had the right to gerrymander. This ruling was upheld by Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans on October 18 and 19, 1960. Fred Gray and Robert L. Carter, lead counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued the case. They claimed that the state’s intent in gerrymandering had been to discriminate covertly against African-Americans.
On November 14, 1960, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Gomillion and the other petitioners. Justice Felix Frankfurter, held that the act violated the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from passing laws depriving citizens of the right to vote, and the lower courts’ rulings were reversed. The case showed that all state powers were subject to limitations imposed by the U.S. Constitution; therefore, states were not insulated from federal judicial review when they jeopardized federally protected rights. In 1961, the results of the decision went into effect and the original map was once again used.
The case helped lay the foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.