A redistricting map is historically interesting, politically significant, and ethically bewildering. Historically, creating a map that “redraws legislative districts” is as old as our country is. Everyone in America lives in a “district.” Redistricting is the process of redrawing legislative districts. Politically, the charade of fairness signifies political gain for one side and boo-hoo from the other. Ethically, redistricting is devoid of fairness because fair elections do not favor the party in power. By design, redistricting aims to stay the course rather than improve the road.

It’s called gerrymandering for a reason. The “gerry” in Gerrymandering was a man named Elbridge Gerry—he signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1810, while serving as governor of Massachusetts, he approved a redistricting plan that gave the political advantage to his party—the Republican party. “Mandering” is a takeoff from wandering. It’s a condition describing people who regularly pace back and forth in a room while engaging in a conversation with themselves or someone else. Mandering folk aimlessly walk into scenarios with little fear of the consequences.[1] it has its own Wikipedia page admitting its primary function—“A practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party by manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts, which is most commonly used in ‘first-past-the-post electoral systems.”[2]

Britinaca.com agrees. “Gerrymandering in U.S. politics is the drawing of electoral districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals.” The mechanics are simple—spread voters from the opposing party across districts—pack them into a minority of districts to reduce their number of seats.”[3] Gerrymandering violates two basic tenants of electoral apportionment—compactness and equality of size of constituencies. Said sarcastically, the party in power gets to count the votes.

There are four basic principles of ethical conduct. Autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence and justice. Gerrymandering violates all four because it exists solely to give the party in power an unfair advantage in future elections. However, being unethical does not make it illegal.

Whether redistricting, aka gerrymandering, results in a partisan gerrymandering is a frequent issue posed in federal and state courts. Generally the civil justice system ducked, dodged, and burrowed under. Said generously, our courts avoid strong rulings for fear of showing political bias towards either of the major parties. It’s essentially a political question, not a legal one.

Gerrymandering exists because we count people every ten years—our national census. The 2020 census is history. The 2022 elections will be counted based on the 2020 census. Redrawn maps will surface. But the US Supreme Court will refuse to umpire the gerrymander game. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court in 2021, said, “Drawing districts to assure a party’s advantage is incompatible with democratic principles, but the practice presents political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”[4]

If the judicial system is stymied, what might be done to counter gerrymandering? The U.S. House of Representatives? Theoretically, it could refuse to seat state delegations achieved through excessive gerrymandering. After all, the Supreme Court “rued excessively partisan district boundaries.” Mind you, they didn’t rule, they just rued.[5]  To rue is to bitterly regret, as in ‘we will rue the day when legislatures name the president instead of the people electing the president.’ We’ve gerrymandered our merry way for over two centuries because political parties are partisan. Mother Jones reports, “GOP Could Retake the House in 2022 Just by Gerrymandering Four Southern States.”[6] Fairness is not an ethical imperative built into gerrymandering. But there are other ethical norms that political parties however loosely adhere to. They value loyalty, obedience, blind allegiance, and fealty. In polite conversation, loyalty and fealty are roughly equivalent. However, political parties seeking autocracy demand fealty as compelling as a sworn vow. Or as the younger population might put it—fealty to the max. The party demanding fealty will gerrymander its way—ethics be dammed.

[1] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Mandering

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

[3] https://www.britannica.com/story/what-is-gerrymandering

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/gerrymandering-redistricting-census-congress/2020/07/17/d1002146-c6f5-11ea-8ffe-372be8d82298_story.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/07/gop-could-retake-the-house-in-2022-just-by-gerrymandering-four-southern-states/

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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