Happy 200th Birthday to the "Gerry-mander"

by Tyler Sadonis // Published February 17, 2012


On February 11, 1812, former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry --- using the same hand that in 1776 had put his name on the Declaration of Independence --- signed into law a redistricting plan for the state senate designed to boost his Democratic-Republican Party. Although political parties had long before drawn maps for their own benefit, the practice now had a name: "Gerry-mandering." The term was coined by the Boston-Gazette which combined the governor's name with the word salamander, aptly describing one of the newly created districts.

Every ten years, congressional districts are redrawn to reflect new census information. This balancing of the number of seats in each state in proportion to population is required by Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Although some states in their early years had statewide congressional elections, since 1967, all states have used single-member districts.

Although Congress has the power to establish redistricting standards, state legislatures usually are in charge of redrawing the boundaries. Since these actors are partisan, whichever party is in control will often resort to gerrymandering to secure political advantage. Essentially, they try to help their friends and hurt their enemies, whether that be one of the major political parties, the states' incumbents, or certain individual legislators.

Two hundred years since Gerry signed his map, gerrymandering is a bigger problem than ever in redistricting plans. Advanced computer technology and more available data allow politicians to gerrymander down to actual neighborhoods and streets. For example, the Maryland 2nd Congressional district wraps around Baltimore, connected together by I-95. The California 23rd Congressional district  hugs the Pacific Coastline and is said to "disappear at high tide." The Massachusetts 4th Congressional district stretches from the suburbs of Boston south towards New Bedford and Buzzards Bay, snaking around other districts along its way. Each of these districts marginalizes voters for the benefit of the party in power.

With recent 2010 Census data in hand, states all across the country have begun drafting legislative and congressional maps, and ---- not surprisingly ---- the process in many has been rife with controversy and beset by partisan jockeying. In Texas, maps redrawn by the state legislature have been caught up in an ongoing dispute relating to the Voting Rights Act that likely will result in a delay in its primary ---- the Supreme Court even weighed in. Civic groups in New York are decrying maps that suppress minority voters. Pick a state, and you're bound to find partisan finger pointing over new district lines.

Many critics of the redistricting process advocate for a more independent process that is criteria-driven, with partisan politics removed as a consideration. Ten states have adopted variations of this process, including California where the Citizens Redistricting Commission was tasked with putting public interest values over the incredible levels of incumbent protection found in the previously gerrymandered districts.

Many of these panels, however, require political appointment, allowing state politicians to maintain an influence over the process with appointees of their choice. And no matter how mapmakers are chosen, they can be subjects of suspicion if given discretion in how lines are drawn. When partisans don't like the projected impact of the new redistricting plans, they can cry foul ---- going to court (as was done in several states in the 2000's), seeking to overturn the plan via a referendum (as is the case right now with the state senate plan in California), or even attempting to fire those on the panel (as happened recently in Arizona).

FairVote advocates that states adopt "fair voting" plans, which combine a number of single-member districts into a larger constituency, called a "super district." Multiple candidates can be elected to a super district through the use of a proportional representation voting system rather than winner-take-all. "Proportional voting distributes seats in a way that is reflective of the vote, allowing far more voters to come out winners," says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote.

We urge you to explore the super district plans created on our website ---- with plans to come for every state this spring. Doing so will eliminate gerrymandering ---- whether intended by partisans or unintentionally by commissions ---- by putting voters in control of their representation.

So while wishing a wry happy 200th birthday to the gerrymander, let's take action to make it a memory, not an ugly sore plaguing our politics.