Elbridge Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a leader in adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and finished his career as vice president to James Madison.
Those are impressive credentials However, he is not known for his public service. Rather, his name is burned into our history books for the drawing of political districts for partisan advantages.
How did this happen?
Gerry was a Democratic-Republican who happened to be governor of Massachusetts in 1812. His party controlled the legislature. The legislators drew state senate districts designed to keep the Federalist Party in the minority. They succeeded, but it took very strange-looking districts to do it. Gerry signed the bill.
The Boston Gazette, a Federalist newspaper critical of the governor, ran a cartoon morphing one of the districts into a winged and clawed salamander with the headline “The Gerry-Mander, a new species of Monster.”
Gerry lost his re-election bid. But the term has lived on in infamy.
Let’s turn to why this is especially important in the coming months.
Redistricting is the process of redrawing district boundaries every ten years following the national census, as is required by the Constitution. It is designed to ensure Congress and legislatures are representative, but too often, it is used to manipulate boundaries and stack the deck.
For decades state legislatures could redistrict, or not — whatever they saw fit.
What is different now? It has been a rocky road. The Gazette and the state of Iowa have featured roles.
Legislators want to protect their re-election and strengthen their party’s power and influence. But voters risk having their votes diluted through tactics such as “packing” and “cracking.” Packing is concentrating many voters of one type into a district. Cracking is the opposite: Spreading like-minded votes among many districts.
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From the earliest days of the country, redrawing legislative and congressional districts had been primarily the responsibility of state legislatures, bodies historically controlled by rural areas. For over 150 years, the courts were loathe to get involved in the “political thicket.”
Throughout the 20th Century, populations began to shift from the country to cities. Yet, in case after case, courts refused to order legislatures to carry out their duty to redistrict. For years, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to get involved.
Change in the 1960s
In the 1960s, this changed. Charles Baker was a Republican who lived in Shelby County, Tenn., where Memphis is the county seat. The Tennessee Constitution required the redrawing of legislative districts every ten years. However, Tennessee had not redistricted since 1901. Shelby County districts had 10 times more people than some rural districts. Baker complained that he was being denied equal protection — two-thirds of legislators elected by one-third of the state’s population. He asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The State of Tennessee argued, basically, it was none of the court’s business. This had been a successful argument for over 150 years.
However, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled Baker was right. Within a couple of years the court established the famous “one person, one vote” standard for legislative districts. This affected virtually every state. In Alabama, like in Tennessee, the state legislature had not been reapportioned for 60 years. The largest senate district was 41 times the population of the smallest. The court said this is wrong.
Since that time, the courts have frequently been involved in redistricting cases.
The Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution to require a generally equal number of people in districts, whether they were state legislative seats or congressional seats. Congressional districts are required to have equal population “as nearly as is practicable.” State and local legislative districts are required to be “substantially” equal. The greater the deviation, the more suspect.
Until the 1960s, Iowa, like other states, was grossly malapportioned. The Gazette and its political reporter, Frank Nye, repeatedly pointed out the shortcomings of the Iowa system. This led to an amendment in 1968 to the Iowa Constitution requiring districts to be equal in population. Unfortunately, this did not resolve the issue. Legislatively drawn maps were challenged in court. Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court found the redistricting plans unconstitutional and ended up drawing the districts.
In 1980, a Story County Republican and a Linn County Democrat co-sponsored a plan to take partisan politics out of the process. No matter how great we thought our idea was, it would not have gone anywhere without the support of Gov. Bob Ray, a Republican. The Gazette added its support. It passed both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support and opposition.
Within the legislative branch there is the Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan agency staffed by professionals. The law directs the agency to draw maps with equal population being the primary consideration. There are other factors, including respect for political subdivisions, contiguousness and compactness. However, what makes Iowa unique is political factors are specifically excluded. Districts cannot be drawn to favor any party or an incumbent. Data concerning incumbents’ addresses, their party affiliation, the party affiliation of voters and previous election returns are excluded.
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The first map is presented to the Legislature. It can only be voted up or down, not amended. If voted down, a second map is drawn and presented to the Legislature. Again, it cannot be amended but must be voted up or down. If it is voted down, a third map is presented to the Legislature, which can be amended.
In the first year of the law, 1981, it was not until a third plan was submitted that it was passed without amendment. In following redistricting years, the first map was accepted twice and only once was it necessary to proceed to a second map.
What is expected in a couple of months are two decisions from the Supreme Court. One from North Carolina and one from Maryland. Republican legislators in North Carolina managed to create districts resulting in nine of the thirteen seats being held by Republicans, even though, statewide, more people voted Democratic. In Maryland, the opposite was true.
What the Supreme Court decides may give license to the political parties to create districts which maximize partisan advantage. On the other hand, if the court strikes down these partisan plans, it will create new standards. It would usher in a new age of representation.
Perhaps the Iowa plan will become the national model, No more gerrymandering. May Gerry rest in peace.
• Bob Rush is a Cedar Rapids attorney and former Democratic state lawmaker.