The Political Art of Gerrymandering


August 25, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr. | THEO LIPPMAN Jr.,Theo Lippman is an editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.

The proposed new First Congressional District of Maryland bears a striking resemblance to the most famous legislative district in American history.

In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed into law a redistricting bill that was designed to give the Democratic-Republicans an advantage over the Federalists. One district was especially oddly shaped -- illogical by any standard except partisan.

Historian John Fiske looked at it and said it had a "dragon-like contour." Painter Gilbert Stuart drew head, wings and claws in it and labeled it a " salamander." Editor Benjamin Russell corrected him with, "Better say 'Gerrymander.' "

The word has lived in political debate, political science textbooks and Supreme Court opinions ever since.

One reason the new Maryland district looks like the ancient Massachusetts one is, of course, that both were drawn for purely partisan purposes.

The Democrats running the redistricting committee set a goal of creating a black district centered in Prince George's County (which would be reliably Democratic) and of protecting all six Democratic incumbent representatives.

The only way they could figure out to do that was to lump two of the three Republican members of Congress into one district. That required them to bring the old Eastern Shore district all the ++ way into Baltimore County -- and to unite bizarre and illogical populations and historical associations in other new oddly-shaped districts, as well.

This sort of taking care of one's party at the expense of the weaker one is as traditional as stuffing the ballot box in American politics. What else would one expect in a two-party system?

The reason the word "gerrymander" has stayed alive these 180 years is that after every Census the Democrats, wherever they are in the majority, try to do it to the Republicans, and wherever the Republicans are the majority, they try to do it to the Democrats -- in congressional, state legislative, city and county council redistricting.

Until the 1960s the Supreme Court lived by the rule that "politicians will be politicians" and refused to be drawn into what a wary Justice Felix Frankfurter had referred to as "this political thicket" and "a quagmire" -- meaning reapportionment and redistricting. But in the period 1962-1964, the court issued several decisions based on a newly-announced "one person, one vote" doctrine. Since then federal judges have become involved in more and more redistricting squabbles between factions within the parties and between the parties.

These have focused on population disparities or on racial discrimination. However, on several occasions Supreme Court justices have said, usually off-handedly in opinions of the court or in concurring opinions (and thus without the full force of law) that districting schemes that harm political groups, such as members of a party, can be and will be scrutinized and ruled on by the federal judiciary.

So far the court has never overturned a redistricting law solely on the grounds that it was a political gerrymander. But in 1986 six justices agreed on the principle that purely partisan gerrymandering can result in the unconstitutional denial of equal protection of the laws to voters of a minority party and therefore a suit could be brought in federal court, where clearly unfair plans could be overturned.

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