What Is Gerrymandering? Supreme Court Won't Rule on Political Boundaries

The Supreme Court avoided a decision on setting limits to partisan gerrymandering Monday, with a ruling that said the plaintiffs in Gill v. Whitford didn't have standing to challenge Wisconsin's statewide assembly district map.

"The plaintiffs' partisan gerrymandering claims turn on allegations that their votes have been diluted. That harm arises from the particular composition of the voter's own district, which causes his vote—having been packed or cracked—to carry less weight than it would carry in another, hypothetical district," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. "Remedying the individual voter's harm, therefore, does not necessarily require restructuring all of the State's legislative districts. It requires revising only such districts as are necessary to reshape the voter's district."

The case centered around the districts Republicans drew in Wisconsin in 2011, which heavily favored their own party. Seven of the nine justices ruled that the case should be sent back to the district court for re-argument, which would give the plaintiffs another chance to establish standing.

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The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of political boundaries to give one party a numerical advantage over the other.

The idea behind the practice is straightforward: If you drew a district map that placed your opponent's supporters in as few districts as possible and spread out your own supporters in as many districts as you can while still having an advantage in each, you can strategically win elections, even when you have less numerical support.

"Gerrymandering has become a refined art," Elaine Kamarck, founding director of the Center for Effective Public Management, wrote for the Brookings Institution. Some districts' boundaries, she noted, are "units as miniscule as streets."

"One way to reform gerrymandering would be to mandate contiguous political districts," Kamarck said. "In other words, districts that make sense as communities, as opposed to districts that wander down highways."

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Visitors line up outside the U.S. Supreme Court plaza, in Washington, D.C., before the court hands down its decision on gerrymandering, on June 18. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While the court decided not to rule on the case, some of the justices acknowledged gerrymandering as an issue they would have to address in the future. "Courts, and in particular this court, will again be called on to redress extreme partisan gerrymanders," Justice Elena Kagan wrote. "I am hopeful we will then step up to our responsibility to vindicate the Constitution against a contrary law."

The first noted instance of gerrymandering occurred in 1812, when Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts drew a political district to favor his own party. Critics labeled his actions as the "Gerry-mander."