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What is gerrymandering and why is it legal?

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing oddly shaped Congressional districts to benefit one party.

ATLANTA — The Georgia legislature is in the process of redrawing the state’s Congressional districts, a process that could result in oddly shaped districts created through a practice known as gerrymandering.

It’s an old practice that has been used all across the country. 

Members of Congress have come from districts like the one in Ohio shaped like a duck. At one time, Georgia had a Congressional district that snaked all the way from metro Atlanta through Augusta to Savannah.

Gerrymandering, understood as the drawing of oddly shaped political districts to benefit one political party over another, is usually legal. Here’s why.

RELATED: Critics accuse Georgia Senate of gerrymandering new district maps

The term comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s efforts to draw a salamander shaped district to benefit his party in 1812. Since the Constitution didn’t forbid it, other states did it.

“Until 1960, the courts didn’t even look at this,” said UGA Political Science Professor Charles Bullock. “It didn’t matter who was being advantaged. The courts didn’t care.”

The 1965 Voting Rights Act guaranteed minority voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. Thirty years later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided some of the districts drawn in response to that act had gone too far.

“The Supreme Court invalidated the overuse of race as the primary determining factor for drawing district lines,” said Emory Political Science Professor Andra Gillespie.

But the Supreme Court said nothing about drawing lines to the advantage of a political party.

“The court said this is what we consider to be a political issue and we’re not going to get involved with it,” Bullock said.

Some states have banished gerrymandering on their own.

“They’ve created non-partisan redistricting commissions which allow citizens and experts to come in a draw the district lines,” Gillespie said.

Each state has to come as close as it can to dividing its population equally while drawing districts that give everyone a fair shot, regardless of race.

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