G is for Gerrymander

Gerrymandering is a word which means “a practice that attempts to establish [in the process of setting electoral districts] a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan, incumbent-protected districts. Gerrymandering may be used to achieve desired electoral results for a particular party, or may be used to help or hinder a particular demographic, such as a political, racial, linguistic, religious or class group.”

The term was created way back in the early 19th century concerning the redrawing of the “Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry…to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.” Thus GERRY+SALAMANDER=GERYYMANDER. Oddly, though, the first syllable in gerrymander sounds like JERRY, Gerry’s name sounds like Gary. Gerry, incidentally was the second Vice President of the US to die in office, after George Clinton, both under James Madison.

The US Supreme Court ruled, in Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), that Congressional and state legislative districts had to be roughly equal in population, consistent with the “one man (later, one person), one vote” doctrine. This was a good thing: some districts had 10 or 14 times as many people as other districts. Invariably, though, the lines drawn shortly after each decennial Census become fraught with controversy.

The 2012 tentative New York State Senate redistricting was described as being in its gerrymandered glory. The Los Angeles Redistricting Commission released its proposed boundary lines for 15 City Council seats in 2012, which led one councilman to call it an “outrageous case of gerrymandering” against his coastal district.

Not all gerrymandering is done with nefarious intent, to keep a political party safe. Some was done to try to create fairness. For decades, concentrations of black voters were parceled into various predominately white districts to minimize the possibility of a “majority minority district”. That behavior too has been deemed unconstitutional as well.

But sometimes the solution is as bad as the disease. Look at North Carolina congressional district 12 (in purple), which is long and narrow and practically bisects the state. I’m sure that it was designed to give a better chance of a black candidate to win. But it runs along the interstate without any sort of community cohesiveness. Similar maps have been struck down for that very reason.

Another big issue in New York is so-called prison-based gerrymandering. Most prisons are in upstate New York; many prisoners are from downstate New York. Critics say the census should count prisoners in the district where they lived BEFORE they were incarcerated, which would lessen the power of the most rural districts where prisons tend to be situated.

There has been a move toward “non-partisan” reapportionment. For most places, though, that is easier said than done.

ABC Wednesday – Round 10

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33 thoughts on “G is for Gerrymander

  1. If the map makers had coloured District 12 in blue, I would have assumed it was a slow moving river!

    Interesting that some issues upset people on both sides of the Atlantic. Anyone serving a prison sentence (even escapees) are barred from voting, but this was deemed disproportionate by the European Court of Human Rights. There has been much debate since as to whether they should be allowed to vote and the most vocal opponents are the politicians who have large prison in their constituencies.

  2. It’s been tried many times in the UK. One local council even tried to steer the poor away from housing in order to increase the rich, who were more likely to vote for the party in power.

  3. Maybe the prison districting is ‘payback’ for having the prisons there in the first place? Silly I know, but I don’t think there is ANY thing too silly or absurd that has been put to or developed by so many of our politicians.

    Have a great week!

  4. Fortunately, New York passed legislation in 2010 that ends prison-based gerrymandering in the state by requiring that incarcerated people be counted at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. This brings New York redistricting in line with both the state constitution and with the federal mandate of “one person, one vote.” Several other states have recently passed similar laws as well. For more info, check out: http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org.

  5. Your post is a great example of why I enjoy our ABC Wednesday. I learn so much.
    I have to admit I never knew exactly what the word meant.
    Many thanks for all of your posts. I look forward to them.

  6. There has been a lot of talk about the problems with redistricting in NC where I live so I’m glad you mentioned my state. As a matter of fact I received a letter today in my email from Grier Martin and I’m copying part of it below since it relates to your post –

    “The abusive redistricting plan enacted this year does many things. It seeks to racially re-segregate the state. It splits a stunning number of precincts, sowing confusion and putting up barriers to voting. And, it targets female legislators. One way the plan targets women is by “double-bunking” them into districts with other incumbent legislators. That is the situation my good friend and colleague Rep. Deborah Ross find ourselves in.

    Certainly, this is a tactic not unique to either party. But, it is important to note that the last time a Democratic controlled legislature engaged in redistricting was the recent Pender-New Hanover court-ordered redistricting. I chaired the committee that drew those districts. There, Rep. Danny McComas, a GOP incumbent lived a mere few hundred yards from the edge of his district. With an easy stroke of a pen, he could have been double-bunked with his fellow Republican Rep. Carolyn Justice. But, we chose to move beyond those kinds of games. We recognized that this sort of thing is a disservice to the voters who have elected those legislators to serve them in the General Assembly. We left Rep. McComas’ district unchanged. Both he and Rep. Justice were rehired by their constituents.”

    Carver, ABC Wednesday Team

  7. Interesting to learn how this word was formed. We have similar rearranging of districts in my part of the world. Whether intended to create more fairness or to advance a particular party (as is most often the case) these type of shenanigans can dampen democratic rights.

  8. When I first began studying for my Bachelor’s in Political Science, we were told—directed, more like—to pronounce the word “gary-mander” and not “jerry-mander” (academics can be very insistent about such things). To this day, I still find myself pronouncing it that way. If I’m asked about it, I tell people about Elbridge Gerry.

    Maybe it’s just me, but when you mentioned George Clinton, the first thing that popped into my head was James Madison getting down to some P-Funk. Dolley could apparently throw a mean party, after all.

  9. Very interesting. I know I knew these things once, wonderful words with political applications like fillibustering and gerrymandering, but they come up so seldom in everyday conversation that I forgot all about gerrymandering. Now I have to wonder if it is used in Canada, and, if so, where and when and why.
    Bad idea, Roger, making me think. I’ll probably have insomnia for a week. LOL
    K

  10. It’s fascinating to learn a new word today, especially how it came to be. I’ve never encountered “gerrymandering” before. The salamander looks like a dragon too.

  11. Interesting to learn the root of the word. They are tinkering with our voting boundaries at the moment and of course creating a lot of complaints and scratching of heads in the consultation period.

  12. There’s been some of that going on in our area recently. I was familiar with the word even though it is actually to me an American word. I think I knew the word mainly because for a long while I didn’t know what it meant. I really have a habit of looking up what words I don’t know and I’m so pleased when I find one in a popular book I may be reading. It usually means the author has put some effort in his writing. A very British word to me is ‘peripatetic’. I always seem to hear someone using it when I am over there, but not often over here.

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