Throwback Thursday: Happy Birthday, Gerrymandering

The term, named for a Massachusetts governor, turns 203.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

In 1812, Massachusetts Republican legislators passed a bill, signed by Governor Elbridge Gerry, that redrew district lines into strange shapes that gave them a better chance at maintaining power in upcoming elections. An editor for the Boston Gazette, which supported the opposing Federalist party, looked at the odd shape of the new district and supposedly declared, “Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander!” On March 26, 1812, the paper published a now-famous cartoon depicting the “gerrymander,” a lizard-like winged beast with claws in Marblehead and jaws in Salsbury.

And so the term for what has become common political practice was born. Each time a new census demands that a state’s Congressional district lines be redrawn, the majority party has the chance to draw them in a way that benefits their party, making elections less competitive. “Gerrymander” has to be just about the worst pun in American politics. Not only does it sound nothing like the word salamander, but nowadays, everyone pronounces it incorrectly, saying “gerrymander” with a soft G like “Jerry.” Governor Gerry’s name used a hard G like “Governor.” Nevertheless, the term has far outlasted the memory of poor Elbridge, who mostly survives today as a piece of trivia. His name popped up on “Jeopardy!” this week.

Indeed, gerrymandering remains a potent force in American politics, and the cause for some seriously bizarre-shaped congressional districts. Just yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected an Alabama law that critics argued redrew district lines to confine black voters to majority-black districts, minimizing their impact on state politics.

Critics of the practice, even when it is merely partisan and not race-based, have argued that district redrawing, which must be done periodically to adjust for population shifts, should be taken out of human hands entirely. Politicians, though, have so far been reluctant to cede their power. Until they do, the name of an obscure Massachusetts governor will remain a relevant one.