The practice of gerrymandering is as old as representative politics, but the name originated in 1812 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry connived with the state legislature to carve out the Essex County a dragon-shaped district.

"That will do for a salamander," exclaimed the painter Gilbert Stuart when he saw it, and promptly penciled in a head, wings and claws.

"Better say a Gerrymander," quipped editor Benjamin Russell. The name stuck.

The Constitution requires reapportionment of the House of Representatives after every 10-year census to reflect population changes. Many states, however, preferred to enshrine their incumbents in the status quo. But the 1960s, Vermont had not reapportioned since 1793, nor had Delaware since 1897.

The Supreme Court's "one-person-one-vote" decisions of the 1960s outlawed gross population disparities, but only added to the creativity of gerrymanders. Common Cause cites the salamander-shaped district that Mayor Richard Daley tried to foist on then representative Abner Mikva. "That's not a map, that's spaghetti," Mikva retorted.

The 1972 California redistricting protected all incumbents except Rep. Paul McCloskey, who had challenged President Nixon. McCloskey found himself in a tortuous district, three blocks wide at some points, which included only a quarter of his former constituents. He won anyway.

Racial gerrymandering flourished. Mississippi, with a 40 percent black population in 1970, carefully drew congressional district lines so that blacks would be a minority in each. The Voting Rights Act of 1964, if vigorously enforced, could prevent such plans this time.