Robert Jakubowicz: Slay the gerrymander monster

Sunday March 24, 2013


If you are wondering why Republicans were able to hold onto a majority in the House of Representatives despite over one million more votes being cast for Democratic House candidates, it was the gerrymander.

This political monster raised its ugly head in the 2012 election to deal a devastating blow to majority voter rule. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) bragged in a recent report that its strategy to win partisan state legislative control to gerrymander congressional districts played a key role in the 33 GOP vote margin in the House of Representatives, despite a a majority vote being cast nationwide for Democratic candidates for House seats, the reelection of President Obama and the election of a Democratic majority in the Senate.


This democratically ugly tampering with the electoral system is as ugly as the monster depicted in an early 1800s newspaper editorial cartoon showing the gerrymander. It is a drawing of an electoral district in Massachusetts resembling an elongated body of an animal to which the cartoonist added a monster's head, wings, claws and a tail. The prevalent story is that the cartoonist said it looked like a salamander, but an editor said that it would be better called a gerrymander because it was one of the districts in the state that Elbridge Gerry had the legislature redraw to dilute the voting strength of his opposition while he sought a third term as governor.

The point of the cartoon was to illustrate the bizarre drawing of lines for the electoral district for partisan political purposes, rather than drawing them the way the framers of the Constitution intended. These lines should be symmetrical to create districts with equal numbers of voters without regard to their affiliation. Gerry had a distinguished career as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as a member of the Continental Congress and later as a congressman, as a governor, and as a vice president, but he is now remembered for this one disreputable episode of redistricting.

According to the RSLC report, the 2012 election could have been a repeat of 2008 when voters gave control of the White House and both chambers of Congress to the Democrats. But the RSLC lauded itself for its strategy that helped to prevent the will of the majority to prevail in the election of members to the U.S. House. It raised $30 million in 2009-2010 in anticipation of congressional redistricting that is required as needed after every 10-year census, which in this case was 2010. The strategy was to use this money to mount a big effort nationwide to elect Republican majorities in as many states as possible so they would control the redistricting process in those states.

This resulted in a big gain for GOP control of state legislatures which the RSLC reported was the key to how the Republicans were able to win control of the House against a majority of nationwide votes for Democratic candidates.

The RSLC cited four states to demonstrate the success of its strategy where Republican state lawmakers were able to redraw congressional district lines by placing a majority of GOP voters in as many districts as possible and diluting the Democratic voting blocs by packing them in just a few districts or scattering them among several districts. In Michigan, a majority of voters elected a Democratic senator by 20 points, reelected Obama by almost 10 points, but elected nine Republicans to five Democrats to Congress. In Ohio, where voters also reelected Obama and a Democrat to the Senate, 12 Republicans as opposed to four Democrats were elected to Congress.

There was a similar result in Pennsylvania where the Republicans elected to Congress numbered 13 to five Democrats. In Wisconsin with a similar statewide win by Obama and a Democratic senator, nevertheless five Republicans and only three Democrats were elected to Congress. If the redistricting had been done to create districts, as close as reasonably possible, with an equal number of persons without regard to political party affiliation, the results of the congressional elections, based on the votes for president and senator, in these states would have been to elect more Democrats than Republicans to Congress.


The Voting Rights Act has caused the courts, including the Supreme Court, to become involved because of the race discrimination issues raised under this law regarding redistricting. But the courts are still reluctant to get involved to the extent of actually redrawing district lines. Meanwhile state lawmakers of both parties continue to manipulate redistricting for electoral advantages.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will finally decide to go beyond merely striking down gerrymandered districts as either violating federal law or denying constitutional rights, rather than sending this back to the states to redo. If the courts do not become involved, state lawmakers will undoubtedly continue with this practice. This will mean that if voter majority rule is to prevail in the governance of this nation, the voters will have to slay the gerrymander monster at the state level by electing state lawmakers who will not engage in this undemocratic electoral game.

Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz, a Pittsfield lawyer, is a regular Eagle contributor.


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