#TBT: When Massachusetts coined the term ‘gerrymandering’

On February 11, 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a bill that gave his party an advantage by shifting the borders of the state’s congressional districts.

This llustration of Elbridge Gerry’s strangely shaped congressional district was published in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812.

As populations grow and shrink, and as new population centers change, the borders shift in the country’s 435 congressional districts. When done right, it’s called redistricting.

To the Founding Fathers, the concept of redistricting was designed to ensure fair and equal representation.

But redistricting has a long, checkered history of being abused as a way to gain political advantage. When done to achieve something other than the fair representation of voters, redistricting goes by a different term: gerrymandering.

It wasn’t invented in Massachusetts, but gerrymandering was named for one of the state’s former governors.

On February 11, 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill into law that redrew the state’s electoral districts, and that gave him — and his party — a distinct advantage.

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The bill’s purpose was apparent: It was designed to ensure victories for Republican incumbents, who controlled the state legislature, by forcing Federalists into fewer districts.

Portrait of Elbridge Gerry by James Bogle, 1860.

The shape of Gerry’s own home district, covering portions of the North Shore, was particularly odd. It appeared to resemble a salamander.

The Boston Gazette coined the term that would forever connect Gerry’s legacy with the practice of politically motivated redistricting.

“The horrid Monster of which this drawing is a correct representation, appeared in the County of Essex, during the last session of the Legislature,’’ read a Gazette article published on March 26, 1812. “All believe it a creature of infernal origin, both from its aspect, and from the circumstance of its birth. … The Devil himself must undoubtedly have been concerned, either directly or indirectly in the procreation of this monster, yet many powerful causes must have concurred to give it existence. … The monster shall be denominated a Gerry-mander.’’

Just two years after he signed the infamous bill into law, Gerry died. But gerrymandering continues to plague the system.

In the 1960s, the practice of gerrymandering focused on creating congressional districts to ensure racial minorities had less power at the voting booth.

“Snakelike districts’’ were created in an “effort to separate’’ whites from other racial minorities, David Lubin wrote in The Paradox of Representation.

A map showing the state’s Congressional Districts in 1968. —malegislature.gov
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Gerrymandering in the 21st century has involved paid consultants and mapping software to comb through population data, including racial composition, according to Robert Draper, who wrote about modern gerrymandering for The Atlantic in 2012.

Proponents of gerrymandering “still torture electoral maps for partisan advantage,’’ according to Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who wrote about the topic in 2004.

“The politicians of 1812 are gone, but their 21st-century successors still torture electoral maps for partisan advantage. … We tell ourselves that we live in the world’s greatest democracy, one whose government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. In fact we live in nothing of the sort, at least as far as our national legislature is concerned. Thanks to modern gerrymandering, most congressional districts have been turned into a Democratic or Republican monopolies – constituencies meticulously mapped to lock in one-party supermajorities and guarantee election results long before voters go to the polls. … the outcome of all but a handful of congressional races is a foregone conclusion: The incumbent will be re elected.’’

In recent years, gerrymandering efforts — as well as those to curb the practice — have continued.

Several states, including Arizona, have opted to have independent commissions oversee the redistricting process. On February 5, a panel of federal judges ruled that two North Carolina congressional districts had been redistricted based on racial quotas, and told the state they had just weeks to fix the issue, according to Reuters.

One of the districts in question was North Carolina’s 12th congressional district, which the Washington Post called one of “America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts.’’

Political leaders in North Carolina filed an emergency appeal.

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