Compactness and Contiguity – the Antidotes to Gerrymandering

By Tony Sissons, Research Advisory Services, Inc., Phoenix, for The Arizona Guardian

So, what is a gerrymander? If you consult the blogosphere, you’re sure to deduce that it is any proposed boundary line on a political map that makes an incumbent feel that he or she has been disadvantaged. Regardless of the shape of the district, any geographic slight can prompt “I’ve been gerrymandered!”

Rather than being an overused label for every perceived iniquity, however, gerrymandering is often about the shape of a proposed district and – even more importantly – the reason for it being that shape.


In 1812, a political cartoonist drew a caricature to illustrate the handiwork of the Massachusetts legislature in drawing a state legislative district to favor the political party of Governor Elbridge Thomas Gerry.

While it looks like a long‐necked griffin to me, others saw a resemblance to a salamander, and the word gerrymander entered the political lexicon. Governor Gerry may be the first victim of gerrymandering – he lost the governorship because of his support for the redistricting bill.

The most inclusive and succinct definition of gerrymandering I found comes from the draft version of “Redistricting Law 2010”, published in February 2009 by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Its Gerrymander glossary entry states: “The drawing of districts intentionally to advantage one group or party over another.” As we will see below, without ‘intent’ and ‘advantage’ there may be no gerrymander – no matter how hideous the shape.

An odd shape, by itself, is not necessarily evidence of a gerrymander. Sometimes an oddly shaped district is the left‐over territory between other districts. In Arizona and other states with extensive rural populations, large Census Blocks (which cannot be divided by district boundaries) can take in whole mountain ranges. In 2000, Arizona had twenty‐five Census Blocks each larger than 200 square miles. Include one or two of those in a district and an unusual shape is almost unavoidable. This is especially true at the scale of supervisorial and community college redistricting.

On the other hand, the absence of unusual shape doesn’t necessarily signal the absence of geographic chicanery. A compact district can be carefully situated to ‘out‐district’ the other party’s candidates or to avoid opposition‐friendly precincts.

How can you tell, then, if it’s a gerrymander? Well, first, why do you want to know? Do you suspect a racial gerrymander or a partisan gerrymander?

An oddly shaped district that appears to create a disadvantage to racial minority voters is very likely to be discovered and disallowed by the U. S. Department of Justice in its review of the jurisdiction’s application for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act. Supreme Court cases have certified ‘discernable and manageable standards’ for DOJ and lower courts to follow in disallowing racial gerrymanders. (We will discuss the Voting Rights Act and its administration two columns hence.)

A partisan gerrymander, on the other hand, is subject to fewer safeguards, and the subject of some degree of Supreme Court vacillation. In Davis v. Bandemer (478 U.S. 109 (1986)), the Court said that the constitutionality of a partisan gerrymander was within judicial purview, and theorized that an acceptable measurement standard could be formulated. Notwithstanding the inherent political nature of redistricting, the question is how much partisan gerrymandering is allowable before a person is denied equal protection in representation afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment?

Two decades later, whether and how to adjudicate partisan gerrymandering claims remains unanswered. In many post‐Bandemer cases, substantial minorities of the Court have questioned whether partisan gerrymandering claims should be justiciable after all, since lower courts have not been able to develop an acceptable standard for measuring the extent of such gerrymanders, or to set a threshold of how much is too much.

So, how can you tell if it’s a gerrymander? You can make the claim and see if the courts or DOJ agree. But, following that facile pronouncement, we’ve got to now give some useful advice to the people who will actually be responsible for drawing district lines. How do we keep them out of trouble?

Districting design principles required of, or adopted by, jurisdictions throughout the country (including Arizona) usually contain statements that districts should be, to the extent practicable, compact and contiguous. Districts that meet those criteria are seldom viewed as gerrymanders.

Here is how I described both principles on public handouts during the last round of redistricting:

Similar dimensions on each axis. The most compact shape is a circle. Not spread out. Not meandering. Compactness reinforces the ability of residents to relate to each other and to their representatives, and for their representatives to relate effectively to them. It also represents the feeling of belonging to a shared place. Compactness is a guard against gerrymandering; it also facilitates political organization, campaigning, and representation. District boundaries should be easily identifiable and understandable to voters.

Every part of a district is physically connected to the rest of the district. No residents feel isolated from their fellow constituents.

Next month, I will discuss ‘one person, one vote’, and who has to redistrict and who does not.

Tony Sissons is a political demographer, expert witness and redistricting consultant. He is relieved that the Massachusetts district was shaped like a salamander. Otherwise, this column might have been about gerrypotamusing.

(Originally published in The Arizona Guardian, January 21, 2010)

Specializing in the analysis of data about geographic areas – Census blocks and tracts, Zip Codes®, voting precincts, land parcels, and traffic analysis zones