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CONNECTIONS: American tradition of perverting democracy

Sad but true: by our democratic process, we elected and continue to elect representatives who seek to pervert or suppress our democratic process.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Have you ever wondered why the popular vote does not always reflect the popular will? Would you be surprised to learn you have the great state of Massachusetts to thank for that?

It was 1812 and the Massachusetts legislators carved out an odd-shaped district on the edges of Essex County. Governor Elbridge Gerry signed it into to law and the word “gerrymandering” was born. Originally the word was written “Gerry-mander” (think salamander). A cartoon resembling a reptile – an odd-shaped beasty with claws, a tail, and the head of a dragon – first appeared in the Boston Gazette March 26, 1812. It satirized the tortured shape and political audacity of Gerry’s political party in drawing the new state senate district.

Elbridge Gerry. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The name stuck and the practice was known forever more as gerrymandering. What was it? It was a method by which the party in power drew electoral districts to favor itself. In 1812 there was a two-party system and the two parties were called the Democrat-Republicans and the Federalists. Gerry, a Democrat-Republican, had suffered with a Federalist legislature and, now that his party was in control of the legislature, he wanted to assure that would continue. It worked.

You may guess Gerry was a political hack, but not so. He was a representative to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the fifth vice president of the United States chosen by Madison. Well-respected, John Adams said of Gerry, “If every man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Hell.” And yet, Gerry did not trust the people as a whole.

Believing the populace would be easily led, especially by demagoguery, Gerry was in favor of the Electoral College. Gerrymandering and the Electoral College are two things that stand between the popular vote and the popular will. Even as Gerry advocated enhanced individual rights, he advocated more stringent controls over the will of the people in the form of indirect elections by the state legislatures. However, he failed in his efforts to have indirect elections of the president of the United States. He wanted to enhance the power of the electors and add the votes of the governors to elect a president, increasing their power and decreasing the power of the people to elect a president. This champion of individual rights and limiter of the popular will died in 1814, 18 months after assuming the vice presidency.

Gerry was successful in convincing the Continental Congress that U.S. senators should be elected indirectly. Until passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures and not by the people. The practice of gerrymandering in American politics went on and on and on. In fact, the practice of manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts for party or class gain is older than the country. In 1788, prior to the U.S. Constitution taking effect, when Patrick Henry was governor of Virginia, Henry persuaded the state legislature to remake the 5th Congressional District, forcing Henry’s political enemy James Madison to run against the formidable James Monroe. So why wasn’t gerrymandering called Henrymandering? When Henry tried it, the ploy failed, and Madison won (as an aside, note, Madison selected the gerrymanderer as his vice president).

A map representing Congressional redistricting methods in the United States. Image courtesy Ballotpedia

More often than not, however, gerrymandering did work, so the practice continued. Political parties colluded to protect incumbents; with racial minorities enfranchised, one party gerrymandered to weaken the political power of racial minority voters, while the other engaged in racial gerrymandering to strengthen the power of minority voters. No group went unnoticed. The New York Times described the two best-known gerrymandering techniques as “packing” and “cracking.” Packing votes refers to concentrating the opposition in one voting district. Cracking refers to diluting the voting power of the opposition across many districts. Native Americans, women, immigrants and Hispanics all have been packed and cracked; the power of “one person, one vote” magnified or diminished based on race, religion or national origin.

Throughout the 20th century, the courts have grappled with the legality of gerrymandering and tried to rein in the politicians. There has been court ordered redistricting, redistricting commissions and strategies for fair electoral districts. Nonetheless, no political party abandoned the attempt.

By packing and cracking – gerrymandering – the will of the majority can be suppressed. Sad but true: by our democratic process, we elected and continue to elect representatives who seek to pervert or suppress our democratic process.


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