The Raw Political Power of Gerrymandering

Salena Zito
|
Posted: Oct 24, 2010 12:01 AM
MARBLEHEAD, Mass. -- A brisk walk down Old Burial Hill, where many young Revolutionary War soldiers rest, and a right turn onto Orne Street lead you to the oddest-shaped house imaginable.

“Oh, that’s the ‘Spite House,’ ” explains Marblehead Historical Commission volunteer Wayne Butler. “Apparently, three brothers who lived there back in the 1700s had a rather large argument and began partitioning off sections of the house in order to not have to see each other.”

The brothers went to their graves, never speaking again.

Over on Washington Street is the well-preserved home of Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father, Massachusetts governor, member of Congress and vice president of the United States.

Yet Gerry -- that's "Gary" with a hard "G," the locals insist -- is best known as the namesake of gerrymandering, the redrawing of congressional districts to benefit the party in power.

Accounts from Gerry’s contemporaries describe him as cantankerous, given to arguing for arguing’s sake. He stubbornly and unsuccessfully ran four times as the Democratic-Republican nominee for governor between 1800 and 1804, finally won in 1810, then lost in 1812.

“He was a bit of a vociferous individual,” Butler recounts. “An original signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was one of three men who refused to sign the Constitution because it did not then include a Bill of Rights.”

Gerry's name became part of today’s political lexicon thanks to maneuvering during his two one-year terms as governor. He redrew the lines of Massachusetts' legislative districts to favor his party; the lines looked like a salamander -- hence the name, gerrymander.

As pundits haggle over how many U.S. House or Senate seats may or may not give Republicans control in Washington, the national impact of gubernatorial races has gone largely unnoticed.

Governors are the CEOs of their states; next month, 37 of them will be chosen. Which party controls those state offices will affect the entire country, since governors have the ability to craft state and congressional district lines and, thus, the control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.

In almost every state or commonwealth, legislators draw the lines - but governors have the authority to approve or veto the maps.

“This is the rawest form of political power in the United States,” says history professor Jeff Brauer at Keystone College.

Today, Democrats hold 26 governor’s offices and Republicans, 24. If the GOP wins the eight seats that most pollsters project for it, then Republicans will hold 32 seats to the Democrats' 18 -- a big change in a key year.

Moreover, Brauer explains, America's population is shifting primarily from the very-Democrat Northeast to the more-Republican Southwest. “That means reapportionment will shift congressional seats and power from blue states to red states, giving Republicans an additional advantage in future elections,” he says.

It also means Republicans can create new districts that result in still more Republican victories, while Democrats must simply try to hold on to what they can.

Some caveats exist to this exercise of raw political power. First, some states are turning to technology, commissions or the courts to help with redistricting, which lessens the political impact of gerrymandering.

And gerrymandering is done by incumbents, so it naturally is biased towards incumbency. Brauer says you will see incumbents protect themselves and each other, sometimes even above party interests: “Plus, with the rise of the independent voter, the gerrymandering strategies of packing, splintering/cracking and pairing are much more difficult to do for party advantage.”

In other words, with more voters identifying themselves as independent, not Republican or Democrat, successful gerrymandering becomes harder to achieve.

In many ways, gerrymandering looks much like the Spite House, a haphazard attempt to gain control. Wayne Butler’s brother Chris is Marblehead's building inspector. Although the two passionately disagree about politics, they have no plans to divide up a home.

“He is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” says younger-brother Chris. “I am a diehard Democrat.”

Yet he admits to struggling to explain how Democrats have helped the working class – the reason he says he is a Democrat – and grudgingly admits the federal stimulus program did not stimulate jobs.

“I was a carpenter, I always thought the Democrats were for the working man,” says the younger Butler. He stubbornly voted against Republican Scott Brown in his U.S. Senate race last January because “I guess I’m a yellow-dog Democrat” – the kind who votes for Dems, even when they don’t deserve it.

The older Wayne sighs in the background, leaving the impression that he considers his brother's dogged inability to see past partisan politics to be not unlike Elbridge Gerry’s famed stubbornness.