The Gerrymander

You may or may not know that the gerrymander is named after Massachusetts pol Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814). Gerry was one of only a handful of men who both signed the Declaration of Independence and was at the Constitutional Convention (but he refused to sign the proposed Constitution due to its lack of a bill of rights). He was also a governor of Massachusetts. Obviously an influential man in his era, he’s now remembered obliquely, by reference to the practice that bears his name–not that most people realize there’s a real person’s name there (and, as I understand it, we even mispronounce it, giving a “j” sound instead of hard “g”). The story goes that he designed a district that wrapped around several Massachusetts counties, and an editorial cartoonist drew wings and claws on the district map and said it looked like a salamander, to which a colleague joked that it should be called a Gerry-mander. A good portmanteau is a thing of beauty, and often expandable: when Texas redistricted in a way that expanded Republican-held seats, critics latched onto Republican Governor Rick Perry’s name and called it a Perrymander.

And here are some current districts, from Slate‘s list of most gerrymandered districts.

Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, the infamous “ear-muffs” district, home to Democrat Luis Gutierrez. While partisan gerrymandering is legal, racial gerrymandering is technically unconstitutional. Some degree of it is allowed to make up for past racial disparities, but if it goes too far the Courts will not accept it. The controlling case is Shaw v. Reno, in which the Supreme Court said that a district that was so “bizarre” as to be ‘unexplainable on grounds other than race’ the strict scrutiny standard would be applied (meaning the district would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional). The Illinois 4th is 74% Hispanic, and “bizarre” is not too harsh a word to describe its shape. Apparently nobody has challenged it. It has a Cook Index score of D+32. In 2010 Gutierrez won re-election with 77% of the vote, his second lowest percentage of his 9 electoral wins.

Arizona’s 2nd congressional district, Republican Trent Franks. This one is an unusual case. The district was drawn to avoid having the Hopi and Navajo represented by the same congressmember, due to the historic and continuing tensions between the two groups. This district encompasses the Hopi territory, but is only 2% Native American and 85% white. Apparently the historic tension between those two groups is less relevant politically.

And here is Maryland’s 2nd district. The district was drawn for the purpose of eliminating a Republican incumbent and electing a Democrat, and Congressman Charles “Dutch” Ruppersberger has averaged 65% of the vote in his 5 wins. That’s not a terribly high percentage for a gerrymandered district (although he did achieve almost 72% once), but still stands as a safe seat for the Democrats.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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3 Responses to The Gerrymander

  1. Pink says:

    I’m re-reading a book I read more than 25 years ago, Gary Nash’s Class and Society in Early America.
    I’m going to remember this post in the even Nash brings it up. I take my time reading it–only a few pages every day as I got several other books I’m going through. Interesting what I underlined when I first read it so long ago.

  2. Lancifer says:

    I worked for the Washington Township (of Marion County Indiana, geographically the same as the city of Indianapolis) Assessor’s office in the 1980’s. Washington township is the most republican of the townships. Our boss, the Washington County Assessor, was an elected Republican. During the slow winter months we had little to do.

    One day they called me and a few other employees into a meeting room. Laid out in front of us was a map of Indiana. Next to it was a pile of computer read outs that contained the addresses and party affiliation of every registered voter in the state.

    They asked us to mark the big map with dots for each voter. Blue for Democrat and red for Republican. When I asked why, I was told “So the Republican dominated state legislature can redraw the districts to give advantage to the Republican Party.

    When I said “Isn’t that gerrymandering?” They said “Yeah, so what. The Democrats do it when they’re in power.”

    It was a sobering lesson for an idealistic 23 year old.

  3. Lancifer says:

    Oops. I accidentally wrote Washington County once. They should all read Washington Township.

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