200 Years of the Gerrymander

March 26, 2012

Today is the 200th Anniversary of the first Gerrymander.  The cartoon-map first appeared in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812 when Jeffersonian Republicans forced a bill through the Massachusetts legislature rearranging district lines to assure them an advantage in the upcoming senatorial elections. Although Governor Elbridge Gerry had only reluctantly signed the law, a Federalist editor is said to have exclaimed upon seeing the new district lines, "Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander."

So here we are in 2012.  As noted by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola School of Law in California, “every 10 years, redistricting litigation joins death and taxes as one of life's certainties.”  Although redistricting is nearly complete in almost every state, there is no shortage of controversy.  Professor Levitt notes 113 cases impacting federal or statewide redistricting have been filed so far this cycle, in 31 different states -- with 26 new cases in November and December alone.  

New York legislators sued, and lost, attempting to prevent enactment of the prison-based gerrymandering law to finally and fairly count prisoners in their home district rather than at the prisons where they are detained.  The state of Texas sought to avoid an interim plan from a federal court while its questionable legislative redistricting plan undergoes the necessary analysis to ensure it does not unfairly negatively impact minority voters.

The voice of the voter is lost in much of the political brouhaha that is redistricting.  Certainly, more states are moving toward commissions, or at least less-partisan redistricting processes.   The highest profile models for both are California and Florida. California used a non-partisan commission, and Florida’s legislature used newly-enacted constitutional amendments to restrain legislators from using certain types of partisan data or considerations in drawing its new districts.  Beyond the states, there are municipalities engaging new methods to attempt to take partisanship and incumbent protectionism out of the redistricting process.  It is not clear, yet, how successful these efforts are at (1) removing partisan bias and (2) ensuring that the redistricting outcomes are as inclusive as the processes that produce them.

After 200 years of political wrangling, it is reasonable to wonder what the urgency of the problem is now.  2012 carries with it an urgency to ensure that our democratic system can fulfill its promises to the American voter.  We are seeing a concentration of wealth, power, and political strength of the kind our country has never seen before:

  • The Brookings Institute recently noted that the country is burdened by high levels of economic inequality and insecurity that the Great Recession amplified, rather than caused.

  • Upward mobility, particularly for those at the bottom of the income distribution, continues to fall short as compared to other Western nations.

  • As of March 26, 2012, the LA Times reports that a total of 44 super PACs have spent $79 million since February 2012.

  • Restrictive voting laws have passed in 13 states.  Those states control 189 electoral votes in the upcoming presidential election – totaling 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect the next president.

The use of redistricting to shore up political power is part of a crisis undermining the rights, freedoms, and efficacy of individual voters in America.   Our time is seeing the playing field flooded with money, political inequity mirroring financial inequity, and laws restricting voting or access to the polls passing nationwide at a rate not seen since the Jim Crow era of the 1890’s.  Gerrymandering is 200 years old today — we cannot let it see another birthday.