They sound like possible program titles for the Cartoon Network: Goofy Kicking Donald Duck, The Earmuffs, The Broken-Winged Pterodactyl, The Upside-Down Elephant, The Fat Squid, A Steamed Crab Hit by a Mallet. Actually, they were the shapes some people saw when looking at federal and state legislative districts that had been gerrymandered to within an inch of their lives. For the record, Goofy was in Pennsylvania, the earmuffs in Illinois, the pterodactyl in Maryland, the elephant in Texas, and the squid and steamed crab in North Carolina. About all they had in common with cartoons was that critics dismissed these squiggly and lumpy legislative lines as loony tunes, and courts rejected some of them as unconstitutional. Gerrymandering — the manipulation of political boundaries by the party in office in hopes of ensuring its enduring primacy — is almost as old as the republic.
The term has been around for more than 200 years, ever since Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts approved a redistricting scheme that included a State Senate district resembling, some thought, a salamander. Across generations, Democrats and Republicans alike have exercised this power vigorously when they have been in charge.
But over the last two or three decades, aided by clever map-drawing software, Republicans have turbocharged the process in some states where they have total political control. And they are dominant to an extent that Democrats can only envy, having captured both the governorship and the legislature in 26 states, a monopoly that Democrats claim in only eight.
Whether the partisan gerrymandering now at work has morphed from an unsavory (if long-tolerated) practice into an insidious distortion of democracy is being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. It is a matter that also underlies this installment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries revisiting major news stories of old to explore how they continue to shape modern events.