Volume 97, Number 3

June 2022


Robert Yablon

As they carry out their decennial redistricting duties, those in power sometimes audaciously manipulate district lines to secure an electoral advantage. In other words, they gerrymander. Often, however, the existing map already gives those in power a significant edge, and they may see little need for an overhaul. For them, the name of the game during redistricting is continuity rather than change.

This Article introduces the concept of “gerrylaundering” to describe mapmakers’ efforts to lock in their favorable position by preserving key elements of the existing map. Gerrylaundering and gerrymandering both serve anti-competitive ends, but they do so through different means. Unlike gerrymandering, gerrylaundering requires no conspicuous cracking and packing of disfavored voters. Instead, it involves what this Article dubs locking and stocking: Mapmakers lock in prior district configurations to the extent possible and stock each new district with one incumbent. Based on a review of redistricting practices in all fifty states, this Article concludes that gerrylaundering is widespread and that self-serving mapmakers commonly combine gerrylaundering and gerrymandering techniques in varying proportions to achieve their preferred results.

Recognizing gerrylaundering as a phenomenon enriches existing redistricting discourse by spotlighting the insidious nature of continuity strategies: They serve to advantage those in power, yet, since they appear more restrained than radical redesigns, they come with a veneer of legitimacy. This Article concludes that the veneer is thin. As a legal matter, efforts to preserve district cores and protect incumbents do not stand on the same footing as efforts to comply with traditional geographic districting principles. As a policy matter, gerrylaundering is more likely to subvert core democratic values than to foster them. At least two significant takeaways follow: First, courts should approach continuity criteria skeptically both when they review challenges to redistricting plans and when they draw maps themselves. Second, and more broadly, minimizing the legacy of prior maps has the potential to inject healthy dynamism into our system of district-based representation.