Congressional districts are required to be redrawn after every census that occurs every decade. They have to be contiguous and to represent a limited range of numbers of people but beyond that the process is pretty much up for grabs. Whoever has the power to draw the lines can do so to achieve their own goals, such as to create safe seats for one party or to unite (or disperse) a particular ethnic or racial group, and so on.

What this can result in are districts that look bizarre, and the term used to describe the result is gerrymandering. The word apparently originated after Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts, in 1812 signed a bill creating a district that looked like a salamander. Here are five strong candidates for the ugliest (i.e., most obviously gerrymandered) districts.

ugliest-mdMy favorite is Maryland’s current 3rd district, shown on the right, that has been given the nickname of ‘The Pinwheel of Death’. Although it may look like it is non-contiguous, all that is necessary is for a tiny strip of land or a beach or a bridge to connect different parts to qualify. A reporter said it took nine hours to drive from one end to the other. Why was it drawn this way? “Sources speculate [current Congressman John Sarbanes] wants to lay the groundwork for a Senate bid someday, and the pinwheel shape puts him in nearly all of the state’s key media markets.”

Jason Jones of The Daily Show talks to one of the people who draws such districts and takes great pride in the results, describing them as works of art.

(This clip aired on December 10, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. lorn says

    Humanity has plays at wanting to live in a world where every race and creed gets along and everyone has a place. But, more often than not, what people really want is to live in a world where everyone is, and thinks, pretty much like they do. So we see nods to diversity while segregation by class, creed and race are indeed the norm. Little gated communities that seek to keep the rabble out.

    And that is what a gerrymandered district is. It is a geographically scattered community of people who think the same way. I blame the suburbs, and the internet, and talk radio, and private schools. Each allows people to live in a wider community without interacting with that community. You can order on-line and have everything delivered, and send your kids to a segregated school, and not listen to the people who ‘aren’t like us’.

  2. snoeman says

    My home State, Washington, actually has a relatively reasonable process for redistricting. By constitutional amendment, it was taken out of the hands of the Legislature in 1983. It’s now done by a five-member commission, with four voting members and a non-voting chair. The four voting members are appointed by the caucus of each party (so that there are two Democrats and two Republicans), and the non-voting member is selected by the four voting members. There are rules about who can be a member of the commission: no lobbyists, can’t be an elected official, a recent former official, a candidate or a potential candidate (within a certain time window).

    The plan adopted by the commission has to follow some basic rules, and requires a majority of the four voting members to adopt the plan. The Legislature can amend the plan, but only in minor ways, and then only with a 2/3 majority vote in both houses.

    The process and the results, while not perfect, seem to avoid many of the excesses seen in many other States.

    Washington State District Finder

    If you click on that link, and select “Congressional”, you can see the 2012 results.

  3. says

    In Canada, this task is performed by the Elections Commissions of the provinces and federal government, a civil-service agency that is explicitly non-partisan.

    It seems really weird to me to imagine puttng the wolves who are lunching with lambs in charge of “what to have for dinner”.

    Also, my fifty-apartment building is at least 30% PoC, and I wouldn’t ever want to live where it was less than that. When my grandkids visit me, I want them to spend time amongst all kinds of Canadians, both those who were and weren’t born here, and those who are PoC and white, of all genders and orientations and political stances (outside the really hateful ones).

  4. lpetrich says

    Why single-member districts? Why not multimember ones? Why not proportional representation? Why do many Americans act as if they have nothing to learn from the rest of the world?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *