Governor Elbridge Gerry Signed Bill to Redistrict Massachusetts, 1812

After looking at the title, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, a post about redistricting bills? This blog has gone downhill fast!” But what if I told you this bill was the origin of the political term “gerrymandering” which refers to strategically redistricting areas for political gain? Now it sounds a little less C-SPAN and a little more Scandal.

Elbridge Gerry, via

On this day in 1812, Governor of Massachusetts and future Vice President of the United States, Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that repositioned congressional districts. In this process, now known as gerrymandering, one tries to group together a certain demographic of voters that will most likely vote for the rival candidate. This, in turn, leads to “wasted votes” because the result of the election is pretty much predetermined. Gerrymandering also refers to reducing the wasted votes of supporting voters. As you can imagine, this process leads to some irregularly-shaped districts. The Boston Gazette noticed that the Essex County that Gerry redistricted somewhat resembled a salamander, and coined the phrase “gerrymander.”

A political cartoon of “The Gerry-Mander,” published in the Boston Centinel in 1812, via.

Gerrymandering continues today; it is technically legal but remains controversial. Currently, states redraw congressional districts every ten years because voters move to different congressional districts, thus leading to uneven populations. This means that voters that lived in a district with fewer voters would have a greater representation than those in a district with more voters. Hence, it makes sense that states would need to redistrict periodically to adjust for population changes. However, many problems arise because in most states, the state legislature, which of course has a political stake in the matter, creates these new districts.

So where should we draw the line? (Pun intended). One alternative is to have a third party redraw electoral districts instead of the state government (although, admittedly, gerrymandering could still occur). In addition, computer scientists are working on programs that could create districts based on mathematical algorithms.

There is debate over how much of an effect gerrymandering has on elections, but I do not like the principle of it: state legislatures rearranging districts so that some people’s votes are “wasted” doesn’t sit right with me. Hopefully, America can pass legislation that allocates the process of dividing districts to third parties or computer programs so that soon gerrymandering will be history.

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