The term gerrymandering refers to the practice of altering voting districts in order to achieve electoral results favorable to one person or party, usually the incumbent politician or party creating the new voting regions. 1 This term, dating back to 1812, is an established method for incumbent politicians to improve their heresthetical “defense,” by manipulating the dimensions of the political landscape. 2 This tactic is extremely common in the United States and a prime example of politicians acting as manipulators.
This essay will argue that politicians are manipulators, as evidenced by the gerrymandering of voting districts to improve odds of maintaining power, and opposition attempts to counteract this electoral maneuvering. The term “Gerrymander” originated in Boston in 1812 while Elbridge Gerry was governor of Massachusetts. 3 In the previous year, Governor Gerry ratified a redistricting plan that greatly improved the odds of his Democratic-Republican Party in the state senate elections.
4 Cartoonists in the Boston Gazette likened the shape of one of the contorted districts to a salamander, and writers in the Massachusetts Spy continued the metaphor by adding Gerry’s name, and accusing the governor of helping elect “Gerrymanders. ”5 This term took hold, and was widely used by Federalists throughout the state to disparage the governor’s alteration of voting districts for political gain. Although the term “Gerrymandering” originated in New England in the early nineteenth century, the practice of manipulating electoral regions can be seen as early as 1788.
6 Patrick Henry, of the Anti-Federalist party, strategically created the borders of the Fifth Congressional District to ensure that the noted Federalist James Madison would be unable to gain a congressional seat. 7 This original gerrymander, although unsuccessful in its attempt to prevent James Madison from becoming elected, set the stage for the method political incumbents would go on to employ for the next three centuries to hamper their opponents. 8 Gerrymandering tactics can be divided into two different methods of improving electoral results.
Referred to as “packing” and “cracking,” these opposite approaches are used to either add more favorable voters to a district, or divide the votes of a particularly unfavorable neighborhood. 9 “Packing” is the process of maneuvering electoral borders to include enough neighborhoods and boroughs favorable to a politician that he may improve his chances of reelection. 10 “Cracking” prevents regions of voters adverse to a politician from preventing his reelection, by either placing these regions in another district, or splitting the votes between otherwise favorable districts.
11 If these votes for the opposition, for example the Republican Party, are split into different largely Democratic districts, they may be counterbalanced by the overwhelmingly Democratic votes. Rather than have one district elect a Republican, these votes are negated by the Democratic votes in both districts, and two Democrats are elected. The combination of these two gerrymandering options allows incumbent politicians to significantly improve their reelection bids.
In a New York Times article chronicling gerrymandering in New York State, the author decries: This process [Gerrymandering] has worked so well for so many politicians that the New York Public Interest Research Group reports that in 2008 more than half of the state’s 212 legislators were re-elected with more than 80 percent of their districts’ votes. In 57 districts, the incumbents ran unopposed. 12 The writer makes the point that post-2002 census redistricting resulted in extremely low rate of political turnover.
More convincing than the fact that the majority of incumbents retained their seats by overwhelming margins is the shocking statistic that a quarter of the incumbents were uncontested. 13 These politicians were so successful at arranging favorable districts that it was futile to even attempt a challenge. The author continued to examine particularly egregious cases of gerrymandering in New York, including that of Senator Guy Vellela, who once selected voters for his district by individual city blocks.
14 Senator Guy Vellela, as well as the other state senators of New York, are prime examples of politicians exploiting gerrymandering to manipulate the outcome of elections and improve their outcomes. Riker argues that these bold uses of gerrymandering are made possible, and even encouraged, by two landmark Supreme Court Cases. Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims were two similar cases from the 1960’s that addressed the unequal representation caused by the unwillingness of politicians to adjust the electoral districts to accurately reflect the major population changes of the twentieth century.
15 Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims forced Congress and state legislative bodies to correct this inaccurate political representation by mandating equally sized voting districts. 16 In fact, Reynolds v. Sims went so far as to require a voting population difference of no more than ten percent between the largest and smallest electoral districts. 17 Furthermore, a judicial requirement that African-American voters be districted in manner that allowed for the election of African-American representatives was an open encouragement by the courts to gerrymander.
18 Politicians manipulate these well-intentioned rulings, which sought to improve political representation, to aid their goal of holding on to their elected positions and maintaining a grip on power. A perfunctory examination of the practice of gerrymandering reveals that politicians are devious manipulators, who exploit Supreme Court rulings and the resulting equal representation rulings to ensure reelection.
However, upon closer inspection, it could be argued that gerrymandering, with its negative association among voters who associate it with electoral cheating, is not a manipulative tactic because it can result in a voter backlash against the gerrymandering politician. 19 Riker states that gerrymandering can shift the heresthetical advantage to the “Outs,” who may capitalize on this voter resentment to steal the seat from the incumbent. 20 As a potentially damaging tactic, and one that can be explained by court ordered redistricting, one may attempt to paint gerrymandering as a tactic that is not solely manipulative.
However, this does not explain the strange outlines, reminiscent of teapots and other nonconventional shapes, that are commonly created, which just happen to improve the political odds of the incumbent. 21 If gerrymandering were not a calculated manipulation of the political districts to favor the incumbent, the shape of districts and voting blocs would be more logical and commonsense, and would not result in especially favorable or unfavorable voting regions. In conclusion, politicians are manipulators, as evidenced by the practice of gerrymandering.
This redistribution of voters to different districts, so that the election tallies will most benefit the incumbent, is a means by which both incumbents and their unelected opposition attempt to manipulate the system. Incumbents alter the dimensions of their constituency to improve their results of their reelection campaign. The opposition must play heresthetical offense and aggressively protest against “unfair” electoral processes, and turn the voters against the “cheating” incumbent.
This practice, used to varying degrees of success for over two hundred years, is a perfect example of the manipulations politicians undertake to either maintain office or achieve it. The best summation of the manipulative nature of gerrymandering is the saying, “In gerrymandered election districts, the voters don’t choose their politicians-the politicians choose their voters! ”22 Works Cited Amy, Douglas J,. Real Choices/New Voices: How Proportional Representation Could Revitalize American Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Online. “Gerrymandering, Pure and Simple. ” Editorial. The New York Times. 11 November 2009. Riker, William H. The Art of Political Manipulation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Print. Robins, Michael D. Gerrymander and the Need for Redistricting Reform. Version 7. FraudFactor. com, 5 December 2000. Online. 4 December 2011. Stroupe Jr. , Kenneth S. “Gerrymandering’s Long History in Virgina: Will This Decade Mark the End? ” The Virginia News Letter. Volume 85 No. 1 (2009): 1-10. Online.