The Scourge of Elbridge Gerry

The original gerrymander was created in Massachusetts in 1812 by Governor Elbridge Gerry.

Within each state congressional districts are created based on density of population. The number of districts will equal the number of House seats and the size of a district will be determined by density. The more dense an area the smaller land mass it will include. Urban districts will naturally be smaller than rural districts. The concept is one man, one vote. Each elected representative’s vote should represent an equal number of that state’s citizens.

All is fine until political parties are added to the mix. Elections laws in the states give the party in power the right to change a district’s boundary lines. So, if it can be determined just where strongholds of a party’s members are located the ruling party can redraw the lines and connect these pockets of strength into a district where the opposing party doesn’t have a chance of victory. This process is called Gerrymandering and has been an ever-growing part of American politics since the early 1800s.

One of the major problems with Gerrymandering is what it does to the individual’s vote. Many districts are so strongly gerrymandered it ceases to be the voter who picks their representative, it is the entrenched party that does so. The party chooses who will vote for its candidate and not the voter. The voice of those in the minority is essentially silenced.

Gerrymandering in today’s America has led to a number of districts becoming so predictable that the incumbents don’t have to worry about answering to the electorate back home. They don’t have to work with members of the other party or with members within their own party with whom they disagree. The result, we end up with the political grid lock we’ve experienced for several decades now.

There is no lack of evidence supporting this. The recent behavior of a relative few Tea Party Republicans in congress is directly related to how their home district has become so gerrymandered in their support. The same reality permits them to make important decisions based on ideological lines and not what is best for the nation. They have such a gerrymandered base they can stand on ideology and return home as conquering heroes while the nation’s real problems continue to go unaddressed.

Ever wonder why so many incumbents get reelected, about 90%, while the favorable rating of congress is at an all-time low? Among several answers lies the advantage a gerrymandered district gives them. It is often impossible to defeat an incumbent because of this.

So, what’s the answer? What could we do to return true representative democracy to the American voter. The answer I favor is proportional representation (PR). Using Ohio as the example PR would do away with all districts and treat the entire state as one big district. Since a state’s border is carved in stone Gerrymandering would cease to exist.

The primary system could still be used to decide the 16 candidates of each party. The 16 top vote getters in the general election would be those who go to Washington. In a heavily Republican state the majority elected would most likely be Republicans but there would almost certainly be some victories for the Democrats, and possibly smaller parties.

I don’t pretend that what I’ve proposed is the total answer or that it doesn’t require a lot more thought. But, I do see it as a step in the right direction, one that takes us away from the ineffective way we’re doing things at present.

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