Drawing the Party Line: History and Technology

To start off my first update, here’s a picture of what might be the first case of gerrymandering.

A brief apology for the henrymandering joke, which was also made in a WashPo article by interviewee C. Douglas Smith, who once judged my We the People unit group and is a genuinely very nice man. Sorry I stole your joke, Mr. Smith.

(Map adapted from Stanley B. Parsons, William W. Beach, and Dan Hermann, United States Congressional Districts, 1788–1841 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1978), 29.)

Even though the term “gerrymander” was coined from Elbridge Gerry’s infamously sprawling 1812 voting district that resembled a salamander, this case in Virginia predates this name by virtue of existing in 1788. Patrick Henry, who leaned Democratic-Republican, designed this districting layout in order to inhibit Federalist James Madison’s election chances since he would have to run against the more popular Democratic-Republican James Monroe. The district in question is labelled “5” on the image and it doesn’t appear to be nearly as sprawling as Gerry’s district. However, it does group Madison’s county of Orange (largely Federalist) in with seven other counties that favored the Democratic-Republicans. Despite this engineering, Madison won his election and defeated Monroe, which is probably why it isn’t called “henrymandering.”

All this history is to say that gerrymandering wasn’t as precise as it is now. In fact, this compact, contiguous grouping of countries would be easily regarded as “one of the most fair and evenhanded” in today’s political terms (Hunter, 2011). Virginia has the longest history with gerrymandering in the United States, hands down.

Some of the most important guidelines of districting are straightforward:

  1. As nearly as possible, districts must have equal amounts of population
    1. If districts have disproportionate fluctuations in population, this is known as “malapportionment”
  2. Districts are single-member, meaning one representative can be elected per district.
  3. Districts must be compact
  4. Districts must be contiguous
  5. A representative must live in the district that they represent

As of the landmark Supreme Court case Baker v. Carr, federal courts are allowed to pass judgement on districting matters. Redistricting normally takes place every 10 years after the census is taken but court cases in 2012, 2014, and 2016 have all forced Virginia to redraw its lines. Clearly, Virginia has a reoccurring issue when it comes to districting. Most of the legal issues come from perceived violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because evidence of racially-motivated district drawing was found in multiple districts, though the Republican-controlled Virginia state legislature argues that they were considering political affiliation rather than racial identity in the districting.

There are a couple questions to consider moving forward:

  • How has the most recent redistricting affected the makeup of each district?
  • Should characteristics like voter political affiliation and race be considered in districting?

Race is a tricky issue in redistricting because it correlates with voting patterns but the lines cannot be drawn with the purpose of moving those of a particular race. Political affiliation considerations seem unethical, since it just increases the advantage of the incumbents and risks making districts noncompetitive. However, both characteristics can backfire if taken into consideration. The 5th district included so many conservative voters that then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was ousted by an outsider Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat, in the 2014 primary. Rep. Bobby Scott’s district has been redrawn to lower the concentration of black voters (which had kept black voters out of neighboring districts previously), which raised the competitiveness of neighboring districts but slightly lowered the Democrat’s advantage in the district.

Redistricting is an equivalent exchange. In order for anything to be given, something must be taken away. The question is, how do we divide what we have in a fair way?

While going through “A Half-Century of Virginia Redistricting Battles: Shifting From Rural Malapportionment to Voting Rights to Public Participation”, I found a link to the DistrictBuilder software, which is freeware that enables anyone to create districts based on existing census data. In my freshman year of high school, the senior class’s end of the year project for AP Government was to use this software to create a plan for submission to a student competition. I’m planning to look into the software to get first-hand experience with district line drawing and a better grasp of the demographic data.


Altman, Micah, and Michael P. McDonald. “A Half-Century of Virginia Redistricting Battles: Shifting From Rural Malapportionment to Voting Rights to Public Participation.” University of Richmond Law Review 47 (2013).

Hunter, T. R. “The First Gerrymander?: Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, and Virginia’s 1788 Congressional Districting.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 9 no. 3, 2011, pp. 781-820. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/eam.2011.0023

OneVirginia2021. “Redistricting” https://www.onevirginia2021.org/redistricting/


  1. pshukla01 says:

    Hey there!

    I’m glad to see a post about gerrymandering as I believe it is a significant issue in our country that is overlooked or misunderstood by many.

    I recently read an article in The Washington Post about how a computer programmer is working to remap current districts to ensure districts with equal populations are as compact as possible. This endeavor would ultimately eliminate the need for hand-crafted and politically influenced districts in each state. The algorithm the programmer developed involved using Census Blocks to ensure the districts actually made geographic sense (e.g. not cutting through a person’s backyard) and optimized them with equal populations. Here is the link to his coding version of the remapped states: (http://bdistricting.com/2010/VA/)

    Using this method allows for “communities of interest,” which are communities that are defined by a common characteristic such as economic interest, race, etc, to be eliminated completely with regards to considering fair and equal districting of states. While I still think that these communities of interest are critical, they can definitely be manipulated in ways that disenfranchise minority groups.

    I’m looking forward to more of your findings, keep it up!