How Gerrymandering Works

Is Gerrymandering Bad for Democracy?

O'Malley, Edwards O'Malley, Edwards
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley speaks with Rep. Donna Edwards before a hearing in 2011. That year, O'Malley and Edwards sparred over a plan to redraw her district. O'Malley later admitted he was wrong to redraw certain districts in his state in a partisan fashion. Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Imges

To a degree, whether gerrymandering is bad for democracy probably depends upon if you're in the party that's clinging to power, or the opposition that is struggling to wrest it away.

But it's hard to argue that gerrymandering hasn't distorted the political system and sometimes led to political representation that doesn't really reflect the voters' views. North Carolina, for example, has evolved over the years from a deep red state into a swing state that Barack Obama won in 2008, and Mitt Romney and Donald J. Trump only won narrowly in the two elections that followed. But you wouldn't know that from the state's Congressional delegation. In 2012, for example, 51 percent of North Carolina voters cast ballots for Democratic Congressional candidates. Yet because of gerrymandering, Republicans won nine of the state's 13 seats [source: Savage].

But even some politicians whose parties have benefited from gerrymandering have come to recognize that it undermines the integrity of the American political process.

In Maryland, for example, former Gov. Martin O'Malley has admitted that when he presided over the re-drawing of the state's congressional districts in the early 2010s, he was convinced that Democrats should use their power to pass a map that gave them an advantage in winning elections. Map-drawing tricks enabled the Democrats to oust a longtime Republican incumbent, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, in a 2012 race [source: Hicks, Savage].

Maryland is a deep blue state — Hillary Clinton won 60 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election, for example — and the state's voters actually approved the Democratic-drawn map in a 2012 referendum. Nevertheless, since then, O'Malley — who left office in 2015 and mounted an unsuccessful campaign for president in 2016 — has changed his mind. In a 2017 speech at Boston College, he called for an end to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, saying that it's led to a political climate in which divisiveness and extremism have paralyzed government.

"Gone from the Congress of today are the Rockefeller Republicans and the Blue Dog Democrats," O'Malley explained, citing two groups of moderates who've become virtually extinct. "Instead, we've fostered a system that drives our representatives apart, a system that has wiped out diversity of opinions."