Gov. Gerry and the Salamander, 200 Years Later

What is the biggest threat to American democracy today? Terrorism? Voter fraud? Money in politics? For many Americans, the answer to that question is gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing the district lines of an electoral constituency to favor one party, individual, or group. As bizarre and un-intuitive as the districts it describes, the word “gerrymander” was coined at the beginning of the 19th century, in reference to an 1812 Massachusetts redistricting plan signed into law by then-Governor Elbridge Gerry. In order to benefit his Democratic-Republican party, Governor Gerry cherry-picked the constituents in each district, creating oddly shaped boundaries, including one which was said to resemble a salamander.

For the past 200 years, gerrymandering has been widely used by both Republicans and Democrats as a tool to maintain control of congressional and state legislative seats across the country. But how can district boundaries be such a toxic problem? Unfair redistricting is one of the preeminent problems facing American Democracy because it reduces competition in elections, diminishes political accountability, dilutes the voting power of American citizens, and has historically been used to target minorities and marginalized populations.

The reform process has been slow. and meaningful change has more often originated from the judiciary rather than the legislature. Nevertheless, there are many groups, ranging from nonprofits to university-affiliated projects, that advocate for real reform and making elections across the U.S. fairer. Some of the best-known organizations are the ACLU and FairVote, political organizations like the League of Women Voters, and campaigns around the nation, such as Better Boundaries and the Fair Elections Project.

(Check out our Resources page to learn more about other organizations spearheading the fight against gerrymandering!)

Beyond advocacy and lobbying, the academic and policy community are increasingly recognizing the role of education in improving public awareness of the problems associated with gerrymandering.  In order to educate voters about the problems arising from unfair redistricting,  Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt's All About Redistricting Guide and the work of academics like University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos provide detailed information. The Tufts-affiliated Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group and policy centers like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU provide great resources as well.

Despite the work of many dedicated advocates and organizations, gerrymandering continues to diminish the constitutional right of American citizens to elect our government representatives.  Additional action from national, nonpartisan organizations is required to improve the lives of Americans. The Center for Electoral Equity (CEE) is the first and only nonpartisan independent expenditure committee dedicated to making electoral processes in this country more transparent and inclusive. Not only does CEE partner with and support projects and campaigns across the nation to fight voter suppression and gerrymandering, CEE also conducts original research into public perceptions of the electoral process and delivers clear recommendations about how to take steps in the right direction.

For now, unfair redistricting weakens the democracy of the United States, and the American people deserve an opportunity to fight back. With the help of voters and organizations like CEE, every citizen will have an equal say in the democratic process of our nation and build a more perfect union.

Vernon Grigg