How To Steal An Election – A Guide To Gerrymandering

Winning elections is hard work and some people would rather skip the inconvenient issue of getting a majority of votes and would instead rig the system in their favour. One way of doing this is known as gerrymandering and was widespread in Northern Ireland for decades (and one was one of the causes of the Troubles) and is common in America to this day (where it is surprisingly accepted as a political fact of life).

Gerrymandering essentially is rigging the system so that you win the most seats (and therefore power) even if your opponent wins more votes. A good example is Derry (or Londonderry depending on your political views) during the Stormont era in Northern Ireland (1922-72). Derry is an overwhelmingly Nationalist city, with two-thirds of its population being Catholic. However, the electoral boundaries were gerrymandered so that the city council was always controlled by Unionists. To do this, the city was divided into three districts, one of which was overwhelmingly Catholic, the other two which had small Protestant minorities. Thus despite having only one-third of the population of the city, Unionists had two-thirds of the council seats (they also made it difficult for Catholics to register to vote). 14,429 Catholics elected 8 seats while 8,781 Protestants won 12 seats.


Ward Voters Catholics Protestants Councillors
South Ward 11,185 10,047 1,138 8 Nationalists
North Ward 6,476 2,530 3,946 8 Unionists
Waterside Ward 5,549 1,852 3,697 4 Unionists


In order to gerrymander effectively, you need three features. Firstly, gerrymandering works best if there are only two parties or at least two election blocs. In a multi-party system like the Republic of Ireland, it would be very difficult to draw the boundaries to suit one party as there are too many variables. Secondly, voters must have defining charactheristics that make them easy to identify and act as a proxy for how they will vote. Race, religion or ethnicity are the best forms as they are clear dividers that don’t change and are recorded in Census data. For example, in Northern Ireland, Catholics almost only vote for Nationalist parties and Protestants almost only vote for Unionist parties.

Thirdly, there must be a degree of residential segregation. If Catholics and Protestants live in the same neighbourhoods, then it’s not possible to draw the boundaries to give yourself an advantage. However, if there are certain areas which are overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant with little mixing (which is still the case today) then it is easy to draw constituencies to separate them. Finally, the divide has to be rigid. If people easily switch parties or move house, then the gerrymander is undermined. It is essential for large proportion of voters to be committed to their party no matter what and unwilling to leave their neighbourhood and mix with the other side.

Northern Ireland perfectly fits all these requirements. The political system was incredibly rigid and primarily composed of two parties, the Unionist and Nationalist party (although various Labour parties unsuccessfully tried to break the mould). There was strong correlation between religion and how you voted, to the point that Catholic/Nationalist are used interchangeably as are Protestant/Unionist. There was a high degree of residential segregation, to the point that councils would allocate Catholics to houses in Catholic areas so as to maintain the gerrymander. The political system was incredibly rigid with politics revolving around the same issues for decades and elections resembling sectarian headcounts.

Gerrymandering was removed from Northern Ireland due to protests from the Civil Rights movement, but it lives on in America. Few people know this, but the Democrats actually won the 2012 house elections, in the sense that they won the most votes, which is the normal definition of winning in a democracy. They received 59,645,531 votes (48.8%) while the Republicans only received 58,228,253 (47.6%). However, due to gerrymandering of districts, the Republicans won the most seats and held on to power.

They did this by gerrymandering several key states. In Ohio, the Republicans narrowly won 51%-47%, which in a democratic system would have lead to a roughly even distribution of seats. However, by drawing the boundaries to suit themselves, they were able to receive a landslide of three quarters of the seats. In Michigan, Democrats were clear winners with a majority of the vote which in a normal democracy would have meant they won the most seats. But that was before the system was corrupted by gerrymandering which gave Republicans seats they didn’t earn. It was worst in North Carolina and Pennslyvania, where in a blatant insult to the Republic, the Democrats won a majority of votes yet the Republicans still won three quarters of the seats.


State Democrat Vote Republican Vote Democrat Seats Republican Seats
Ohio 47% 51% 4 12
Wisconsin 50.4% 48.9% 3 5
North Carolina 50.6% 48.7% 5 13
Michigan 50.9% 45.6% 5 9
Pennslyvania 50.3% 48.8% 5 13


America fits the criteria set above. There are only two parties meaning that Democrat and Not-Republican are essnetially the same thing. There are clear demographic differences between the groups, with race being the most obvious along with the urban-rural divide, but also age and class. There is also a strong degree of segregation in America, both along racial lines but also increasingly also on political lines. Finally, America politics is incredibly rigid, with a wide gulf between the two parties who regularly demonise each other.

Considering how much anger there was over phony scandals such as Benghazi and the hysteria that welcomed Obamacare, it’s shocking how indifferent Americans are to gerrymandering. Its democracy is being corrupted and rigged so that one party stays in power regardless of how the people vote. Voters are being treated like pawn pieces to be moved to suit the party elites. Increasing numbers of people are being disengaged from voting because they feel their vote doesn’t matter and to an extent they are right. If Obama stayed in power despite losing the election, there would be rebellion. Yet, had the electoral college distributed its votes based on congressional district rather than states, Romney would have won, despite Obama winning five million more votes.

While the Republicans were the worst offenders in 2012, both parties pervert electoral districts to suit themselves instead the voters. The electoral map of America is littered with the most twisted and convoluted shapes as politicians tie themselves in knots drawing districts to keep themselves in power regardless of how the voters feel. A quick way of checking if a district is gerrymandered is to look at how squiggly it is.


Some of the most blatant examples of gerrymandering

Some of the most blatant examples of gerrymandering


The gerrymandering in Northern Ireland led to a widespread disillusionment with the political system and a widespread feeling among the Catholic minority that they were deliberately excluded from power. The government was viewed as a dishonest enemy not worthy of respect or loyalty. This tension eventually exploded into violence of the Troubles which dissolved the Stormont government. In contrast, Americans seem inexplicably apathetic about modern gerrymandering. Democracy is being eroded into solely favouring one side.


Filed under Politics

11 responses to “How To Steal An Election – A Guide To Gerrymandering

  1. Or you can do gerrymandering like Sir Jo did in Queensland for nearly two decades: give certain groups (in this case, people in the country) 2 to 2.5 votes, and all others (those in the cities, the majority) 1 vote. Works a charm.

  2. perfectlyGoodInk

    Nice discussion. I see gerrymandering as a side-effect of the winner-take-all system in single-seat districts. It becomes a very ineffective strategy in multi-seat districts employing proportional representation.

  3. If Obama stayed in power despite losing the election, there would be rebellion.

    -Bush won power despite “losing the election” (by popular vote). Romney needed three more states to win: Virginia, Ohio, and Florida. In America, tiny numbers of people living in certain states and districts can create huge differences in election results.

    • Yes, the method of electing presidents via the Electoral College is basically another example of gerrymandering in the American electoral system, only this time a one built-in into the system from the start, rather than tacked-on decades later.
      Good thing the Founding Fathers didn’t write in a way to easily redraw the state borders.

      • perfectlyGoodInk

        The Electoral College in and of itself wouldn’t lead to gerrymandering, because states could technically choose to allocate Electoral Votes in proportion to the percentage of the popular vote won within the state (e.g. the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact). The problem is that, like Congressional districts, the current implementation of the Electoral College is also a winner-take-all system that doesn’t factor in the strength of the minority.

  4. John Pennington

    In the US we avoid gerrymandering by making districting boards bipartisan. Except of course in certain Republican states (particularly the ones you cite), where they prefer to win elections by cheating.

  5. Ben

    “This tension eventually exploded into violence of the Troubles which dissolved the Stormont government”

    It sounds as if you are saying that Gerrymandering caused ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, which is obviously incorrect. ‘The Troubles’ were an explosion of deep-rooted historical economic, and social animosities, which to a large extent still exist today in the ‘deeply-divided society’ of Northern Ireland. The tensions between religious groups and government in Northern Ireland, was a much larger issue than just gerrymandering. Gerrymandering was more of an inevitable secondary consequence.

  6. Moon

    The Chicago gerrymandering doesn’t have anything to do with Republican/Democrat gerrymandering – it’s to get a Hispanic majority in that district (ALL the districts in Chicago are Democrat)

    • Wayne

      I think the author of the article missed the ‘all politics are local’ rule in his discussion on gerrymandering. I’m in the 4th Congressional District in Illinois whose boundaries would appear a little peculiar. As you stated there are no Republicans to disenfranchise. However I think the district was created to help one particular Hispanic , Congressman Guitteriez,and not all of them.

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