G is for Gerrymander

The US Supreme Court ruled that Congressional and state legislative districts had to be roughly equal in population, consistent with the “one man (later, one person), one vote” doctrine.

Gerrymandering is a word that 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 for 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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