Original cartoon of “The Gerry-Mander”, this is the political cartoon that led to the coining of the term Gerrymander. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists in 1812.
Gerrymandering is almost as old as the Republic itself and this strange process happens like clockwork every ten years after the completion of the once a decade census mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.
This verb comes to us from Elbridge Gerry, Governor of Massachusetts, during the redistricting process which took place in 1812 after the census of 1810. During that time, the state was redistricted in such a way as to ensure victory in various legislative and Congressional districts for the Democratic-Republican Party. Gerry was a member of this oddly named party, started by Thomas Jefferson, which evolved into the modern day Democratic Party.
One of the districts had a dragon-like appearance. A map of this district hung in the office of an anti-Gerry newspaper editor named Benjamin Russell. One day, the artist Gilbert Stuart, (who painted the famous unfinished portrait of George Washington), came into Russell’s office and saw the peculiarly shaped map. Stuart added a head, wings, and claws to the map of the juggled district and said, “that will do for a salamander.” Said Russell, “better make it a ‘Gerrymander.’” Though Governor Gerry had nothing to do with juggling the districts, the name caught on and is used to this day, long after Gerry himself has been forgotten. He lost his bid for re-election mainly because of the cartoon of the ‘Gerrymander.’ However, he went on to be Vice President of the United States.
2010 was a census year and there was a lot of very, very heavy political campaigning by both parties to win control of as many state legislatures as possible. Reason: state legislatures draw the election district boundaries for themselves but even more important, they draw the boundaries of the Congressional districts in their state. Having been involved in politics for almost thirty-five years, I can tell you that it makes one hell of a difference how a district is drawn.
Gerrymandering is a humdrum footnote to elections and few of us ever think about it. But it is precisely the kind of activity people are complaining about when they say ‘big money’ or ‘special interests’ control the government. Most people can’t articulate the specifics which make them so angry but when people learn about this process they usually get really mad – and I can hardly blame them. It is outrageous. Legislative districts in New York State, for example, are so gerrymandered that one can make a case that the voters are actually deprived of representation. It’s the same with the Congressional seats in all states. Of the 435 Congressional seats, probably only 80 are actually competitive – meaning that the opposition party has a chance of taking the seat from the incumbent. I haven’t looked this up, but of the Congressional seats which changed hands in the last election, I would imagine that all of these districts are classic “swing” districts and probably go back and forth every few elections between the two major parties.
That’s why the following intrigues me so much: We Draw The Lines. This is revolutionary. Truly. Only Iowa had such an independent redistricting body with Florida becoming the third state in 2015.
[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]