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200 Years of the Gerrymander

Gerrymandering is 200 years old today — we cannot let it see another birthday.

  • Keesha Gaskins
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.