By Kelly Jean Kelly
30 December, 2018

"Gerrymander" is an old word for an idea that is still important today in the United States.

The term was first used in 1812 by an artist who made pictures for a newspaper. The artist wanted to call attention to a strangely-shaped voting area in the state of Massachusetts. The area looked like an animal: a salamander, to be exact. It had a strange shape because Massachusetts officials made it that way to help the political party of the state's governor, Elbridge Gerry. So the newspaper called the area a "Gerry-mander."

Over time, many people exchanged the hard "g" for a soft "g." Today, creating a voting area for the purpose of helping a political party is commonly called "gerrymandering." The issue remains in the news because politicians have a chance to re-create voting districts every 10 years, after the nation's population is counted.

In most states, officials from the majority party change the boundaries of voting districts after the count is completed. Each area must have about the same number of people. But officials can group similar voters together. Or they can split up groups of like-minded voters to limit their power.

Critics of gerrymandering argue that the way a voting district is mapped strongly influences which party wins a race, especially races for the U.S. Congress. They say the custom is not democratic – it puts the interests of political parties over those of voters.

Some politicians defend the practice – especially when they are in the majority. They say gerrymandering is legal, part of the political process or not really an important issue. They also say the Constitution gives the power to create voting areas to state lawmakers.

Once again, critics object. They say the courts, including the Supreme Court, could and should step in.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.