Elbridge Gerry (July 17, 1744 – November 23, 1814) “was a Founding Father: signer of the Declaration of Independence, reluctant framer of the Constitution, congressman, diplomat, and the fifth vice-president” (Trickey, 2017). Gerry is obviously an important figure in the United States; however this was all news to me when I read about it. I had no idea about Gerry or his history when I started researching this idea for a blog post. What I did know is that the gerrymander originated from the political hijinks of a person named Gerry.
Wikipedia (2018) defines “Gerrymandering [as] a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. The resulting district is known as a gerrymander.” Trickey (2017) notes that the first gerrymander was a result of a redistricting bill that Gerry signed as Governor of Massachusetts in February of 1812. Trickey further elaborates on the origin of the word:
The word “gerrymander” was coined at a Boston dinner party hosted by a prominent Federalist in March 1812, according to an 1892 article by historian John Ward Dean. As talk turned to the hated redistricting bill, illustrator Elkanah Tisdale drew a picture map of the district as if it were a monster, with claws and a snake-like head on its long neck. It looked like a salamander, another dinner guest noted. No, a “Gerry-mander,” offered poet Richard Alsop, who often collaborated with Tisdale.
The end result of a gerrymander is to provide a structural advantage for the party that draws the boundary lines. Therein lies the problem: in advantaging one party over another a gerrymander effectively strips any semblance of democracy from the process of voting. A gerrymander effectively nullifies the vote of the opposing party.
Democracy in the United States in complicated. Challenging an incumbent politician is difficult. Incumbents typically hold an advantage in fundraising. An incumbent in a gerrymandered district is near unbeatable. If an incumbent’s constituents tire of that him or her, it could be near impossible to get rid of them.
Recall that this problem is structural. When an incumbent retires, their party still controls the seat. I can think of few things that are more anti-democratic than this.
Trickey, E. (2017, July 20). Where did the term gerrymander come from?: Elbridge Gerry was a powerful voice in the founding of the nation, but today he’s best known for the political practice with an amphibious origin. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/where-did-term-gerrymander-come-180964118/
Wikipedia contributors. (2018, October 24). Gerrymandering. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:56, October 31, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gerrymandering&oldid=865588091