Gerrymandering meaning: definition of term in UK - what is it and Jacob Rees-Mogg voter ID comments explained

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The government has insisted that voter ID was implemented to stop voter fraud and boost voter confidence

Jacob Rees-Mogg has appeared to call the implementation of voter ID in this month's local election a failed attempt at "gerrymandering" that worked against the Conservatives.

The former cabinet minister claimed that the policy had made it more difficult for elderly Conservatives to vote and "upset a system that worked perfectly well." The policy required voters in England to present photo ID when casting their ballots in the May elections.

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Speaking at the National Conservatism conference in Westminster on Monday (15 May), Rees-Mogg said: “Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections."

The government has insisted that voter ID was implemented to stop voter fraud and boost voter confidence in the UK elections, and was never intended as an attempt at “gerrymandering”. But what exactly is gerrymandering, what does it mean, and why is it frowned upon in politics?

What is gerrymandering?

Jacob Rees-Mogg delivers his keynote address during the National Conservatism conference on 15 May (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Jacob Rees-Mogg delivers his keynote address during the National Conservatism conference on 15 May (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Jacob Rees-Mogg delivers his keynote address during the National Conservatism conference on 15 May (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Technically, "gerrymandering" refers to the manipulation of electoral boundaries or voting districts to gain a political advantage for a particular party or group. It typically involves strategically redrawing electoral boundaries in a way that concentrates or dilutes certain groups of voters to influence election outcomes.

This can be done by various means, such as packing like-minded voters into a few districts to ensure their dominance or spreading them thinly across multiple districts to weaken their influence. Gerrymandering can also involve dividing communities or manipulating district lines to exclude or include certain populations based on political preferences or demographics.

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The goal of gerrymandering is often to maximise the number of seats a particular political party can win or to minimise the chances of an opposing party's success. It can lead to distorted representation, where the allocation of seats does not accurately reflect the popular vote.

Gerrymandering has been a contentious issue in many democracies, as it can undermine the principle of fair and equal representation and erode public trust in the electoral system.

Where does the word come from?

In the US, the redrawing of electoral districts occurs once every 10 years following a census, a process that can be susceptible to gerrymandering if it is manipulated for partisan advantage (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)In the US, the redrawing of electoral districts occurs once every 10 years following a census, a process that can be susceptible to gerrymandering if it is manipulated for partisan advantage (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
In the US, the redrawing of electoral districts occurs once every 10 years following a census, a process that can be susceptible to gerrymandering if it is manipulated for partisan advantage (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images) | Getty Images

The term originates from the United States, where it was coined in the early 19th century. It was named after Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts, who signed a bill in 1812 that redrew the state's voting districts to benefit his political party.

The plan heavily favoured Gerry's Democratic-Republican Party, and the Federalist Party, which was in the minority, criticised it as an unfair manipulation of boundaries. The new districts were drawn in a manner that resembled the shape of a salamander, particularly one district that had a long, winding tail-like extension.

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Political cartoonist Elkanah Tisdale drew a cartoon depicting one of the distorted districts for the Boston Gazette. The caption beneath the cartoon combined Gerry's name with the word "salamander," resulting in "Gerrymander" - the term quickly gained popularity and entered the political lexicon.

During the subsequent elections, the Democratic-Republicans won a majority of the seats in the Massachusetts legislature, despite receiving a smaller share of the popular vote compared to the Federalists.

However, the political backlash against Gerry and his redistricting plan was significant, and negative publicity surrounding the redistricting scheme contributed to the Federalists' victory in the 1812 gubernatorial election, where Gerry himself lost his bid for re-election.

Is introducing voter ID 'gerrymandering'?

Over time, the term has evolved beyond its original definition to encompass various tactics or strategies aimed at gaining an electoral advantage or influencing the outcome of elections. While introducing voter ID laws is not strictly equivalent to traditional gerrymandering, both involve efforts to shape electoral processes in ways that could advantage one group or party.

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Critics argue that these measures can erect barriers to voting, particularly for marginalised or underrepresented communities, and affect the electoral balance. Ahead of the local elections, this perception was seen as potentially beneficial to the Conservatives, but Rees-Mogg's comments suggest a feeling the new rules actually worked against the party.

"We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative," he said at the National Conservatism conference. "So we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well.”

The Conservatives lost more than 1,000 councillors and control of 48 councils in last week's local elections, while Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all made gains at Rishi Sunak's expense.

The government has repeatedly said that voter identification laws were enacted not as an attempt at gerrymandering and were not intended to favour the ruling party, but rather to reduce voter fraud and increase voter confidence in the UK elections.

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Asked about his comments, Rees-Mogg told the BBC: "I thought people assumed that it would help get more Conservatives out and in the end, it actually did the opposite". He added that there was "no evidence that personation [the crime of voter fraud] was a serious problem".

"There have been hardly any prosecutions or even any complaints in this country over decades."

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