Seeking to End Gerrymandering’s Enduring Legacy

 

By CARL HULSE JAN. 25, 2016

WASHINGTON — Buried less than two miles from the Capitol is the man many blame for the toxic partisanship infecting Congress today even though he died 202 years ago.

Elbridge Gerry was a patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, drafter of the Constitution, House member, governor and vice president under James Madison. Yet he is best known today for the twist on his name that now defines the twisting of legislative boundaries to give one party or candidate an electoral advantage. This “gerrymandering” is seen by many as a root cause of Washington gridlock, a point President Obama underlined anew in his final State of the Union address.

Mr. Gerry, as governor of Massachusetts in 1812, signed into law a state legislative map that included an irregularly shaped district obviously drawn to benefit his party. A cartoon in The Boston Gazette archly observed that the map resembled a salamander and added a head, wings and claws to bring it to life.

“Better say a gerry-mander,” retorted the waggish opposition newspaper editor Benjamin Russell, who is often credited with coining the exact term. Thus, a lasting element of America’s political lexicon was born. (Mr. Gerry’s name was pronounced with a hard “G” that has been softened in the contemporary use of gerrymander.)

History says that Mr. Gerry told his son-in-law that he found the map “highly disagreeable.” Now, growing numbers of politicians, reform advocates and voters are finding the map-drawing process highly disagreeable as well, spurring new attempts to institute a less partisan process in some states in advance of the reapportionment that will follow the 2020 Census.

The underlying problem is that strict political control of the map-drawing process, aided by sophisticated computer programs that can micro-target political affiliation, has stuffed Congress and state legislatures with increasingly safe seats, making lawmakers difficult to dislodge no matter what they do. And these districts, coupled with party primaries often decided by the most ideologically committed, produce candidates who veer toward the extreme ends of the political spectrum. By some estimates, only 15 of the 435 House seats are considered truly competitive this year.

“People are so upset that their votes don’t count anymore,” said Ellen Tauscher, a former Democratic House member and ex-State Department official from California who is one of the leaders of the bipartisan YouDrawTheLines 2021, a national reform effort. “You can’t hold members at risk in the general election.”

In Congress, the end result can be a lack of incentive to compromise given the disappearance of the political center. In fact, the opposite motivation can take hold: a refusal to cede ground in order to appease the most ideologically driven constituents.

Many see this dynamic in the current makeup of the Republican House majority, which has benefited significantly from friendly redistricting by state legislatures controlled by Republicans, though Democrats have gotten the same helping hand in states like Illinois and Maryland.

Redistricting reformers say the stalemate and divisiveness that have been distinguishing characteristics of Washington in recent years have provided new momentum as frustrated members of the public don’t need much convincing that something is off kilter in American politics.

“They are looking at the gridlock and dysfunction in D.C. and see that bleeding more and more into state governments,” said Brian R. Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, which promotes a more politically neutral drawing of that state’s legislative boundaries. “And you are looking at this saying, ‘There is something systemically wrong here.’”

The entire effort got a boost from Mr. Obama in his State of the Union address when he singled out a flawed redistricting process as one of the fundamental problems with American politics.

“I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” said Mr. Obama, reprising a favored line. “Let a bipartisan group do it.”

Mr. Cannon said the president’s remarks drove an uptick in his group’s followers on Twitter. Other activists reported a jump in interest after the speech, as reform efforts gained steam in states including Ohio, Virginia, Illinois and Maryland.

Left unsaid by the president, however, was the fact that he benefited from a political redistricting exercise in Illinois early in his political career when a state Senate district was drawn to give him a better chance of victory.

That fact illustrates the major difficulty in instituting redistricting changes. Most politicians are in no hurry to force through changes in a system that directly benefits them. Republicans, who have the advantage right now in state legislatures, sat on their hands during the president’s redistricting comments while Democrats cheered. But in Maryland, where Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed for changes in the process, it is congressional Democrats who have been leery.

Given the chance to make redistricting more nonpartisan, voters generally support the idea. The creation of independent redistricting commissions got an important assist from the Supreme Court last June when it found that Arizona voters could take the power of drawing district lines away from the legislature and give it to a nonpartisan commission.

Widespread embrace of that concept could change the way Mr. Gerry, the only signer of the Declaration of the Independence buried in Washington, is remembered. He ended up interred in Congressional Cemetery in a corner of Capitol Hill when, while serving as vice president, he died in his District of Columbia boardinghouse on Nov. 23, 1814. His congressional biography notes that his “public responsibilities, coupled with his relentless socializing, had sapped his strength.”

If most of the politics could be excised from legislative mapmaking, perhaps Mr. Gerry could finally rest in peace.

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A version of this article appears in print on January 26, 2016, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Seeking to End Gerrymandering’s Enduring Legacy.

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