In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, signed a law that created new legislative districts that, in the eyes of some people, appeared to be shaped like a salamander.
From that observation, it was one short step to the emergence of a new word that quickly became commonplace in American politics, gerrymander.
“Gerrymandering has been condemned because it violates two basic tenets of electoral apportionment — compactness and equality of size of constituencies,” the Encyclopedia Britannica observes.
“A U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1964 stated that districts should be drawn to reflect substantial equality of population. However, using studies of regional voting behavior, the majority parties in certain state legislatures continue to set district boundaries along partisan lines without regard for local boundaries or even contiguity.”
And that’s the situation to this very day. Without widespread gerrymandering, the stalemate in the House of Representatives probably would never have developed.
In their drive to sabotage not just Obamacare but the president they blame for the 2010 adoption of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the legislation’s actual name), some politicians insist they are simply acting on behalf of the American people.
“The American people don’t want a government shutdown, and they don’t want Obamacare,” one House Republican leader declared flatly. “We will do our job and send this bill over, and then it’s up to the Senate to pass it and stop a government shutdown.”
But let’s be realistic: “The American people” they refer to are mostly tea party stalwarts, and as earnest as they may be, their agenda does not necessarily represent the views of a majority of the people in this diverse country.
And these leaders are ignoring the fact that in 2012, two years after passage of the Affordable Care Act, the American people re-elected President Barack Obama by a surprisingly wide margin.
These politicians are anything but dumb, so they know what satisfies their constituents.
Indeed, some elected officials appear to translate their constituents’ preferences, which perhaps they honestly embrace, into a questionable national consensus.
(In one recent poll, a majority of those questioned expressed utter contempt for “Obamacare” while cheerfully approving “The Affordable Care Act,” even though they’re exactly the same thing.)
Gerrymandering remains widespread in the United States (Democrats have been just as guilty as Republicans), and its use enables the majority in any state legislature to establish Congressional voting districts that are precisely tailored to its political agenda. If the shapes of the resulting districts sometimes are baffling, if not downright illogical from any other standpoint than partisan advantage, then they’re simply mimicking the infamous 19th century scheme of Gov. Gerry. Today’s American voters deserve better. And today’s consequences are much more critical.
What the United States needs is for both political parties in every state to cast aside gerrymandering and accept the wisdom of the 1964 Supreme Court ruling that made clear the fallacies of the practice.
If that were to happen, we might see an end to the irrationalities that are so abundant on Capitol Hill in today’s political climate.