Elbridge Gerry is alive in Pennsylvania

By on January 17, 2012

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) was an early American politician, ninth governor of Massachusetts, and fifth Vice President of the United States. His name lives on today because of a practice developed on his watch to redraw political districts in creative ways that served those in power. One contemporary observer thought a newly drawn district suggested a salamander or lizard. That’s how the reptilian practice got its name.

Over time, legislators assigned to redistricting efforts have become very creative. Some districts curl around and grow fat and stringy as they wander through state demography along roads and through cemeteries. The practice creates safe districts for those in power at the time of redistricting. It keeps long-standing powerful figures in office as their support falls away. It creates ethnic or special-interest districts to win votes. It creates sops and spoils for big contributors.

Sometimes the burden of responsibility for redistricting has been given to judges but this is no guarantee of impartiality. California passed a law putting this practice in the hands of an independent body, but if one lets politicians decide which ‘independents’ sit on the commissions, the intent of impartiality is thwarted.

In Pennsylvania’s 16th district, Republican party operatives have drawn another salamander, one doing a forward roll, designed to inject a mix of conservative rural voters into voting districts outside Philadelphia to keep Republicans in office.  Meanwhile the 1st district now resembles an earthworm with a cummerbund trudging up the Delaware River . The 6th district looks like an amoeba undergoing binary fission and so forth. Elbridge would be very proud.

The public needs to pay attention here. Pennsylvania is not alone.

The intent of redistricting after each decennial Census decade was not to pose a new creative artistic challenge to legislators. It was to redraw districts in a way that represented shifts in the population no matter who is favored. Redistricting is too important to the democratic process to put in the hands of politicians. We need redistricting commissions nationwide that are truly independent and impartial.

Tom Godfrey



About Tom Godfrey

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


HTML tags are not allowed.