If one can imagine history as being colored – red, say, for warfare, maybe blue for plague or famine – then, to my eyes at least, pretty much all of history would be coated with a wash the color of irony. (Query: what hue would you make that?) The intensity might vary with time, but it would never be totally absent.
Consider, for instance, Elbridge Gerry.
Gerry was born in 1744 and died in 1814. In his seventy years, he accomplished a prodigious amount. He started at age 22, when he became a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he served from 1776 to 1780 and from 1783 to 1785. There he signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. In 1787 he was a delegate to United States Constitutional Convention. He was one of only three who refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t yet have a Bill of Rights. He was next elected as a member of the House in the first Congress. From 1810 to 1812 he served as governor of Massachusetts. In 1813 he became Vice President under James Madison, an office he held until his death.
In short, Gerry was a bona-fide member of that extraordinary set we revere as the Founding Fathers.
But what do we remember him for today? For signing a redistricting plan for Massachusetts so convoluted in its efforts to insure Republican victories that people said it looked like a dragon. In fact, an editor of the day said it looked like a Salamander, the legendary lizard born from the heart of a fire. So he promptly dubbed the plan the Gerrymander.
There is a nice double irony here: Not only do we remember a certified Founding Father as nothing more than the father of a political dirty trick, but we mispronounce his name in the bargain. Elbridge Gerry pronounced his name to sound like Gary. But as preserved in his eponymous portmanteau word, it is pronounced to sound like Jerry.
I suppose one could even say that there is a third irony here. Once upon a time, gerrymandering was a recognized political sin that characterized only the most brazen of machine politics. Today, as part of the general lowering of the moral bar in public affairs, it has become something perilously close to standard operating procedure across the country. Every time there is a census, whichever party happens to be lucky enough to be in power in a state does its level best to make that happy condition permanent. And if the recent upheaval in Texas becomes the norm, it will no longer be a decennial event: Every time the legislature changes hands we can look for the districts to be redrawn.
What is amazing about all this is the sheer shamelessness of it all.
Think about it. To achieve their goal of job security, the politicians are committing a subversion of the franchise at its most basic level. If every district is going to be as solidly blue or red as the politicians can manage, then it no longer matters who you vote for or even if you vote at all. If your choice is from the majority, your vote isn’t needed. If yours is from the minority party, your vote can’t keep your candidate from losing. Your elected politicians have changed the system so that your vote means nothing at all.
Oddly enough, this troubles me. So let me make one of my usual modest suggestions.
The essence of the problem of trying to eliminate gerrymandering is twofold. First, the politicians will resist the idea to their last breath. Second, virtually every group of people we can think of to substitute for the politicians can also be impugned as having a vested interest according to some future scenario. So exactly who would we trust to do the necessary redistricting required by the changing census? Judges, say? Lawyers, perhaps? How about good old-fashioned “disinterested volunteers?”
Don’t think so.
To address the first problem, it is clear that we will have to pry the redistricting power out of the hands of politicians by main force, neither altruism nor public spirit being conspicuous in our current crop of “servants.” Fortunately, with the initiative/referendum system, the public has the power to overrule the pols. Granted, this system has lately been bastardized to serve largely the special interests and the zealots, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be made to serve its original purpose of embodying the public will.
As to the second, I think it is clear we have to get humans out of the loop. There is simply no group that all are willing to trust.
Suppose, instead, we passed an initiative mandating that in the future redistricting would be done by computer. That the software program to perform the redistricting be contracted out via an open bidding process. And that the software had to conform to a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) set of guidelines.
1) The source code belongs to the state and must be open to everyone,
2) District boundaries have to be based solely on:
a) Municipal and county boundaries,
b) Number and location of eligible voters,
3) The districts within municipal, county, and state boundaries must be drawn so as to equalize, as nearly as possible, the number of eligible voters, subject only to the following additional constraints:
a) The lengths of the boundaries around each district are to be minimized.
b) The boundary changes from the last redistricting are to be minimized.
I’m not one of those people who constantly harks back to “the good old days.” But in this one case, I’d like to see gerrymandering (with apologies to Elbridge) restored to its traditional status as a dirty word.