Elbridge Gerry was a Founding Father: signer of the Declaration of Independence, reluctant framer of the Constitution, congressman, diplomat, and the fifth vice-president. He served as governor of Massachusetts and signed the bill creating the misshapen state senate district designed to benefit his political party.
Smithsonian Magazine says the word “gerrymander” was coined at a Boston dinner party hosted by a prominent Federalist in March 1812, according to an 1892 article by historian John Ward Dean. As talk turned to the hated redistricting bill, illustrator Elkanah Tisdale drew a picture map of the district as if it were a monster, with claws and a snake-like head on its long neck. It looked like a salamander a dinner guest noted. “No, it’s a Gerry-mander,” said another.
Every 10 years, following the census adjustment for population, representative districts must be re-drawn. The political party in power at the state-level at the time of the census-driven redistricting has the greatest influence on the make-up of the maps being drawn up for the next decade. And for more than 200 years, gerrymandering has become a part of the political landscape in the United States.
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It is important to note, both major political parties have been active participants. There are a few exceptions. Since 1980, Iowa’s districts have been drawn by nonpartisan legislative staff. They follow a strict set of criteria, including a prohibition on the use of political data. Iowa is one of only a handful of states with such a prohibition. For the most part, the U.S. Constitution is silent on the process of redistricting.
In Wisconsin, the 2010 election (a census year) produced a Republican win in the State Senate, the Assembly and the Governor’s office. Not surprisingly, the Republican-drawn districts have favored Republican candidates in elections during the past decade. Currently, the State Senate and the Assembly are led by Republicans and the Governor’s office is led by a Democrat. Both parties have drawn new district maps and not surprisingly they are significantly different, each favoring their own party.
The outcome will likely be settled in the courts. As reviewed in an Wisconsin Public Radio analysis, there are multiple scenarios should the courts become involved. There have been efforts in Wisconsin to adopt the “Iowa Model.” Twenty-eight of the state’s 72 counties have now passed referendums, which are essentially appeals to the state Legislature to change the current partisan system. Under the Wisconsin Constitution these referendums have no binding authority under law.
Is gerrymandering bad? There is a general consensus by the population that gerrymandering lacks fairness, as indicated by the recent Wisconsin referendums. This appears to be the case in other states as well, regardless of the political party in power. Perhaps the biggest concern involves fair and equal representation of all constituents, including those in the minority. A cornerstone of ethical leadership for elected officials is to work to the best of their ability to represent all of the constituents that they serve.
Gerrymandering is in reality a powerful disincentive to doing this. An elected official in a “safe district” may not feel any compulsion to listen to the concerns of minority voters. Furthermore, if an elected official strays too far from the political party line, there is a likelihood that they will face an opponent in the next primary. A party-backed opponent in a gerrymandered district will be hard to overcome in the primary election. It then becomes much easier to disregard the concerns of the minority population.
Is there anything the average citizen can do about gerrymandering? Of course, the vote is always the most important tool. A strong voter turnout is likely to produce added leverage, even for those that did not achieve a majority in the election. A poor voter turnout may be indicative that gerrymandered districts are ultimately successful in suppressing voter turnout.
But citizens should also reach out to their elected representatives (regardless of their political party) to express the importance of common ground solutions needed to address the most pressing problems we face. Gerrymandered districts, when coupled with a climate of hyper-partisanship, is a deadly combination for the integrity of the American democracy.
Elected officials who are ethical leaders will recognize this…whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent…whether they serve in the majority or minority…whether they win or lose the next election.