Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1744. Gerry was involved in many of our country’s most important historical events. He was a member of the Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation. He signed the Declaration of Independence. And while he attended the Constitutional Convention in 1798, he refused to sign the Constitution because it did not contain a bill of rights.
In 1810, Gerry was elected Governor of Massachusetts. In the middle of his second term, however, he made the mistake of proposing a redistricting of the State’s legislative districts. His proposal was much criticized for redistricting the state to the advantage of his own party (Democratic-Republican). The Boston press found the proposal to be overly partisan, noting especially that one district resembled a slithering reptile. Because of its shape, that district earned the moniker the “salamander.” In short order, however, the district became known as the “gerrymander,” after its creator.
Thus, while the term “gerrymander,” in the context of partisan political claims, first came to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 in the case of Davis v. Bandemer, it has actually been around since the very founding of our country. Some of our founding fathers are memorialized by having major universities named after them (George Mason). Others entire cities (George Washington). Elbridge Gerry gave us the “gerrymander.”
Recently, the post-2010 redistricting process driven by GOP-controlled state legislatures has garnered much attention and, in some cases, outright scorn.
Liberal commentators, for example, have argued that Republican map magicians in a few key states contributed significantly to the House majority. Soon after the November 2012 election, liberal news outlets were quick to note the partisan politics at play in the redistricting process. From Mother Jones: “So how did Republicans keep their House majority despite more Americans voting for the other party – something that has only happened three times in the last hundred years, according to political analyst Richard Winger?” The answer: “Because they drew the lines.”
A quick glance at the 2012 election results would seem to support this charge. After all, for example, President Obama won 51 percent of the vote in Ohio, but Democrats carried only 4 of the state’s 16 congressional seats. Similar stories played out elsewhere. Obama won 52 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, but Democrats took only 5 of the state’s 18 seats. Obama won 54 percent of the vote in Michigan, but Democrats carried only 5 of 14 seats in Michigan’s congressional delegation.
Indeed, the success of their redistricting was not lost on Republicans. In early 2013, the Republican State Leadership Committee released a candid report entitled, “How a Strategy of Targeting State Legislative Races in 2010 Led to a Republican U.S. House Majority in 2013.” The report detailed how the group spent $30 million in low-cost state legislature races in 2010 to flip control of state legislative chambers. “The rationale was straightforward,” the report reads. “Controlling the redistricting process in these states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn.”
But while the Republican redistricting post-2010 clearly impacted the 2012 elections, it is far to simplistic to claim that Republicans retained their House majority in 2012 because of gerrymandering alone. Rather, it is becoming clear that the state-by-state level disparity between the popular vote in the House and the distribution of seats was not just due to Republican gerrymandering, but also because of skewed geographic distribution of population putting Democrats at an inherent disadvantage.
Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden, for example, recently examined the possibility that human geography plays a significant role in generating electoral bias. Chen and Rodden performed a series of automated districting simulations, and found that Democrats tend to be inefficiently packed in to homogenous districts.
In other words, Democrats, as a result of the industrial revolution, great migration, and subsequent patterns of suburbanization, are often more clustered in space than Republicans. States that are heavily urbanized (e.g., New Jersey and Pennsylvania), therefore, are more distorted against Democrats than more rural states (e.g. Minnesota and Wisconsin), resulting in a pro-Republican partisan bias that is persistent even in the absence of intentional partisan gerrymandering.
It is important to point out that these results do not imply that Democrats are doomed to the minority for the foreseeable future. But they do demonstrate that Republican redistricting does not fully explain why House Democrats got a majority of the popular vote and a minority of the congressional seats.
Political gerrymanders cannot do what they are designed to do: permanently imbed the majority party in power. Consider the 1990s. In 1990, Democratic controlled states used the redistricting process in an attempt to entrench Democratic control of Congress throughout the decade. But just one election later, in 1994, Republicans swept to power in Congress with unprecedented gains. Voters across the country indicated they disagreed with the majority party, its policies and its leadership. Admittedly, this is not a perfect comparison, but it is at least valuable to keep in mind.
The inherent problem with political entrenchment is that it tends to push the entrenched party further to the extreme. That is precisely what some top GOP strategists and candidates are worried about – that the party’s appeal is narrowing at a time when its future rests on the opposite happening. Indeed, an increasing number of House Republicans are safely ensconced in their district, and have more to worry from a primary challenger backed by the Club for Growth than a Democratic opponent. And that will be the GOPs downfall.
After rearranging the election districts in his favor in a grotesque salamandar-like shape, Elbridge Gerry was promptly voted out of office. Gerry angered the voters, and an angry voter is extraordinarily dangerous. When voters decide to throw the rascals out, that is exactly what they will do. No amount of partisan gerrynamdering will prevent it.
Think critically. Challenge yourself. Avoid the safe and the comfortable. The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks. Nam et ipsa scientia protestas est: And thus knowledge itself is power.