Author:
Tom Marabello
Subject:
U.S. History, Political Science
Material Type:
Activity/Lab, Interactive, Lesson Plan, Teaching/Learning Strategy
Level:
Middle School, High School
Tags:
  • 19th Century America
  • Census
  • Civic Engagement
  • Civics and Government
  • Congress
  • Gerrymandering
  • Political Cartoons
  • Redistricting
  • Voting
  • Voting Behavior
    License:
    Creative Commons Attribution
    Language:
    English

    Gerrymandering: What it is and Why it Matters

    Gerrymandering: What it is and Why it Matters

    Overview

    The topic of Gerrymandering can be a difficult one to teach and get students to understand. This lesson includes several options, along with additional resources and information for the new teacher or a teacher who like many Americans may have trouble grasping and explaining gerrymandering and congressional redistricting. The lesson options include having students engage in a Debate and/or activity where they draw or redraw the boundaries of a state or congressional district.

    Background

    Gerrymandering is an important and controversial way that congressional districts are drawn or redrawn every ten years after the national census is completed. The census is mandated by Article I, Section II of the U.S. Constitution. Gerrymandering has often been used to increase a political party’s power based on its voters’ party affiliation and location. Redistricting defines geographical boundaries within a state and affects the election of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures. The term “Gerrymandering” dates to 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (later Vice President of the United States from 1813-14) was involved in drawing a district in his state that looked like a salamander (see the famous political cartoon above).

    Information

    Gerrymandering matters because it comes up every ten years when we conduct the census and population shifts lead to redrawing congressional districts in certain states. Based on the most recent 2020 census, the following states are impacted:

    States gaining House seats:   States losing House seats:
    Texas   California
    Colorado   Illinois
    Florida   Michigan
    Montana   New York
    North Carolina   Ohio
    Oregon   Pennsylvania
        West Virginia

    Standards and Objectives

    From the National Civics Standards:

    • What are Civic Life, Politics, and Government?
    • What are the Foundations of the American Political System?
    • How Does the Government Established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy?
    • What is the Relationship of the United States to Other Nations and to World Affairs?
    • What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?

    Objectives:

    • For students to be able to understand and explain Gerrymandering and congressional redistricting.
    • To allow students to think and analyze different views of Gerrymandering, including pros and cons.
    • For students to gain an appreciation for what Gerrymandering is and why it matters today.
    • For students to form an opinion on Gerrymandering as part of being civic minded and knowledgeable about something that occurs every 10 years when we have a new census, and that has been a term in American politics since 1812.

    Activities

    This attachment is meant to be an answer key and gives you information about Gerrymandering. You could share it with students after they have brainstormed PROS and CONS of Gerrymandering, or use it to help fill in what they may miss after each group shares what they thought of.

    See Resources for additional readings, video and information. These are meant more for the teacher than the student when preparing to cover Gerrymandering.

    There are a couple different ways you could teach about Gerrymandering. It might be best to start by asking students if they know what Gerrymandering is? (Some especially in high school may have heard the word before).

    Consider showing this 8 minute video on YouTube by Crash Course Government and Politics on Gerrymandering.

    These handouts: Gerrymandering - Background Information from The Choices Program are helpful and informative, especially if you want students to do the Debate or Decide the District Boundaries activities listed below.

    Then you could do one or more of the following activities:

    Political Cartoons

    Use these Google Slides to view and have students analyze several political cartoons related to Gerrymandering.

    Debate

    Using this graphic organizer have students brainstorm a list of PROS and CONS of Gerrymandering. You could split the class in half, where half focus on PROS and half focus on CONS or have them try to think of as many for both, working in pairs or small groups. Then ask groups to report what they came up with. Consider then having them fill in what they may have missed (from your provided answer key) or give them a copy of it as notes. You could also turn this into a Debate where they have to choose to support or oppose Gerrymandering, using what they have learned leading up to this.

    You Decide the District Boundaries

    Have students work in pairs or small groups as a committee to create the boundaries for a state or congressional district. Consider having them do your home state or going with one that needs to be redrawn, based on the most recent census. Give them a map and poster paper to draw the boundaries. Ask them to consider political parties, demographics, voting behavior and past boundaries. They may need to do some additional research online before starting to draw the district. Once completed, have each group show and explain their boundaries to the class. Ask groups and the class whether or not the boundaries they drew or redrew are an example of gerrymandering.

    Resources

    Lunch Bites: Congressional Redistricting by USCHS, YouTube, Sept. 21, 2021

    After every census, our states redraw the boundaries of their Congressional districts, greatly impacting our elections and representation in Congress. With redistricting set again for this year, we examined the history–and controversies–of this important Constitutional process, and what we can expect when the lines are again redrawn. Two of Washington’s preeminent political observers joined us for this webinar: Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and David Hawkings, a longtime Capitol Hill journalist and founder of The Fulcrum. It is one hour in length and may give you a better sense of gerrymandering and congressional redistricting.

    Gerrymandering Explained by Brennan Center for Justice

    This article looks at how Gerrymandering harms our politics and is viewed by many as being very undemocratic.

    Gerrymandering - explained by CNN

    This article with news clips explains gerrymandering and the 2019 Supreme Court ruling on partisan gerrymandering.

    Gerrymandering Isn't Evil: Why independent redistricting won't save us from political gridlock by POLITICO

    This article from 2015 looks at how gerrymandering has not led to an increase in political polarization and electoral competitiveness. According to the authors, the three biggest myths are: Gerrymandering a district always makes it safe for incumbents; Partisan gerrymanders are ubiquitous; and Strangely-shaped districts are bad.

    Princeton Gerrymandering Project by Princeton University

    This project at Princeton seeks to bridge the gap between math and the law to achieve fair representation through redistricting reform.

    The Impact of Partisan Gerrymandering by the Center for American Progress

    This article looks at the effect of gerrymandering on electoral outcomes and population, and how it has led to disenfranchisement.

    Elbridge Gerry

    This short biography of Elbridge Gerry, 5th Vice President of the United States, comes from the U.S. Senate website.