Art Callaham: "A history lesson on gerrymandering"

December 17, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

While on vacation in Texas a couple of weeks ago, I watched a news documentary on "gerrymandering" and I learned a great deal. Considering what is going on with the redistricting of Maryland's 6th Congressional District, I thought a column about gerrymandering was in order.

The following is a little history, according to research I did online.

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts' state senate election districts under then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts 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. The exact author of the term gerrymander might never be definitively established, but it is widely believed by historians that Federalist newspaper editors Nathan Hale, and Benjamin and John Russell were the instigators.  

The word gerrymander was reprinted numerous times in Federalist newspapers. This suggests some organized activity of the Federalists to disparage Gerry in particular and the growing Democratic-Republican Party in general. Gerrymandering soon began to be used to describe not only the original Massachusetts example but also other cases of district-shape manipulation for partisan gain in other states. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, institutionalization of the word became complete with its first appearance in a dictionary in 1848 and first appearance in an encyclopedia in 1868.

I was pleased to read that gerrymandering was first used to benefit a "Democratic-Republican" governor, so I could write this without fear of offending anyone other than the Independents, Unaffiliated, Green and Libertarian folks.  The humor — and, yes, I know that the term Democratic-Republican was the name of one party, not two — is that every party, when in power, has been gerrymandering political lines to "benefit" the party in power since the early 1800s.

In fact, gerrymandering has been used to segregate or integrate racial and ethnic groups, as well as groups based on political party affiliation, in terms of voting. In spite of, or because of, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gerrymandering has been a tool for creating districts for minorities or for diluting minority areas with majority voters to ensure a voting district is represented or not represented by minority or majority candidates.

Confusing? Sure it is. What else would you expect from a process born in Massachusetts and nurtured in Washington, D.C., for more than 200 years?  (My apologies to anyone from Massachusetts, but I just couldn't help myself after reading Mitt Romney's vacillation in his critique of his state health care program — implemented in Massachusetts while he was governor — versus "Obamacare.")

But, wait there's more. In some respects, the Feds are pikers when comes to gerrymandering within the states. Remember, gerrymandering first occurred in a state scheme. It's good to be king — or governor — if your party is in power along with similar party persuasion in the legislative arm of your state government. Every 10 years, in conjunction with the national Census, prescribed by the Constitution, a governor has the power to divide a state into legislative districts in a manner that more often than not will keep the governor's party in charge.

No, it doesn't work all of the time, but it is a powerful political tool. Who would have thought that a governor in Massachusetts 200 years ago would be the architect of a process that would have sweeping impact on our political system today?

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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