Little did Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, know that his name would be remembered with somewhat infamous regard as well as being linked with an amphibious newt. But that’s what happened when the Governor redrew the lines of the districts in his state to unfairly benefit his political party (peculiarly named the Democratic-Republican Party). The redistricting created what some thought resembled the likeness of a salamander though editors of the Boston Gazette where the word Gerrymander was first used printed the cartoon on the left showing the district as resembling a dragon. The engraving blocks for this cartoon are on display at the Library of Congress. Incidentally, Governor Gerry‘s name is pronounced with a hard ‘G’ sound while today the word gerrymander is pronounced with a soft ‘G’ as if it were spelled Jerry.
As a representative democracy, the United States recognizes the states right to draw district lines based upon changing populations. For 2010 much of the nation’s population migrated from the midwest into the southern and the western states. This necessitated the need to create new congressional districts to adequately represent the interests of these new populations. A heavy migration to Texas, for example, will create four new districts while several other states will lose districts due to declining population. Redistricting takes place based on the results of the census conducted every tenth year.
Gerrymandering isn’t actually illegal but it can be used for dubious purposes, generally to disproportionally favour a minority party. There are several ways to go about it. In one scenario, a district is redrawn to divide a population that is heavily, say Democratic, into adjacent districts that are heavily Republican thereby diluting the Democratic influence. This is known as ‘cracking‘.
Another form involves concentrating a particular type of voters into one block, say a heavily African American and liberal voting population. This is called ‘packing‘ and it concentrates populations into one area that would otherwise dilute the influence of surrounding less populous conservative areas. When race is involved it is also known as ‘bleaching‘.
And then there’s prison gerrymandering. This creates issues in districts with a large prison where prisoners are counted in the population which artificially inflates the political representation since they are ineligible to vote. The counter argument being that the prisoners should be counted in the districts from which they originally lived.
The use of the Gerrymander has yielded some unusual results. Ever wonder why there is a North and South Dakota? Gerrymandering was used to create more representation from one large sparsely populated territory by splitting it in two. Double the representation in congress in one fell swoop. Some redistricting schemes have led to some interesting shaped districts often comprising the width of a highway running through it or in one odd case the district was drawn right up to the incumbent representative’s doorstep (but not where he parked his car). The gerrymander has also been used for positive outcomes such as increasing ethnic minority representation in congressional delegations.
We’re already seeing some hints of Gerrymandering in Texas and Arizona for 2012. Texas in particular has been notoriously guilty of using the process to shape the outcome for Republican politicians. Tom Delay was involved in a scheme that gives Texas the right to redistrict anytime it wants rather than at the decennial census so long as it does not unfairly harm an ethnic or minority group. There are already hints that some of the redistricting for 2012 will discriminate against Latino voters and hurricane Katrina African American refugees but most critics believe that Democrats will eventually have the advantage under the new lines in three of the new districts. The courts are being kept busy on regulating the process.
Similarly, Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer has come under fire recently for dismissing the Redistricting Chairwoman without cause. Critics claim it was because the Chairwoman was the only independent on the five person committee and the plan they came up with would pit two Republicans against each other for the same district. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel has called this an impeachable offense and suggested that Arizona consider ousting the already embattled Governor Brewer.
Redistricting maps have to be approved by the federal government so many of these new districts will likely be in courts for awhile longer. Maps have to meet the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s requirements for fairness. Several states have adopted non-partisan commissions to redraw their maps and that seems to cut down on the conflicts.
Representative Democracy is always messy and diligence is required to keep those who would abuse the Gerrymander reined in. But a true Democracy is always worth the extra effort.
- Michael P. McDonald: Ohio Democrats Move to Block Republican Congressional Gerrymander (huffingtonpost.com)
- Is Gov. Jan Brewer being fair? (politico.com)
- California vs. the Gerrymander: Why Republicans Are Quaking (time.com)
- Redistricting, a Devil’s Dictionary (propublica.org)
- Texas redistricting map likely to be redrawn to benefit of Dems (TheHill.com)