I am a big enough man to admit when I make a mistake. In this case, it’s a whopper. And this being my 271st birthday, it’s time I apologized for a harmful political tactic I brought into being.
My name is Elbridge Gerry. I’m one of our country’s Founding Fathers. I signed the Declaration of Independence and helped write the Bill of Rights. I was governor of Massachusetts and the fifth vice president of the United States.
For all of these impressive – if I do say so myself – accomplishments, I am known today only for my biggest mistake: in 1812 I approved a redistricting plan that gave my party an unfair advantage in the Massachusetts senatorial elections.
My opponents said the district containing my hometown looked like a salamander, which they combined with my name to create “gerrymander.”
Well, 203 years later, there is nothing funny about gerrymandering, which lets political parties draw voting districts to protect members of their own party. You can be certain that if I had known where gerrymandering would go, I never would have signed that bill. I didn’t really even like political parties.
Reading the newspapers today, and perusing the newfangled “Internet,” I am appalled by both political parties drawing congressional, legislative, county, city and even school board districts to keep themselves in power, instead of trying to draw districts that really represent the voters. With all the remarkable technological wonders you have today, it seems to me that you could come up with some good rules for drawing districts and then use your machines to draw the districts that get rid of the partisan advantage for BOTH parties.
A short while ago, I read that most legislative districts in North Carolina were not even competitive, with nearly half of your General Assembly races having just one candidate on the ballot last year – effectively deciding the election before a single vote was cast. Sadly, the prime culprit depriving you of a choice at the ballot box is gerrymandering.
As someone who risked his life
to establish American democracy, I must say that this is appalling. We fought our revolution for the right to decide our own fate, for the right to vote for our leaders. Now other Americans, from both political parties, are trying to take it all away.
I was really depressed when I realized this and was feeling more than a bit guilty for my role in pioneering such tactics, but lately I have seen some signs that gerrymandering may be waning.
Twenty-one states have taken the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians and given it to independent commissions. (And by the way, very impressive work on getting to 50 states. I hear the U.S. now stretches from ocean to ocean. Amazing!)
And about two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court – one of our better creations when we wrote the Constitution – upheld the right of states to create these independent redistricting commissions. Justice Ginsberg got it right when she said “the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.”
Also good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court told Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina that they needed to take another look at the way they did redistricting in the last round. They ordered Alabama to redo its map drawing and another court told Virginia to redo theirs. North Carolina is still up in the air.
Alas, the people of North Carolina have a problem when it comes to drawing maps. As I’ve been catching up on recent history, it seems that for the last five decades partisan redistricting has created highly polarized districts and undermined citizen confidence in government. And there has been almost endless litigation over these voting maps in state and federal court.
There is some reason for hope, however. Today there is a bill in the N.C. House with 63 cosponsors that would give North Carolina nonpartisan redistricting. The proposal has broad bipartisan support, including former governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, as well as more than 225 local elected officials throughout the state.
Check out EndGerrymanderingNow.org or connect with me on Twitter, where I’m known as @GovGerry, to learn more about the efforts for redistricting reform.
Join the many North Carolinians who are fighting to make certain that your elections are fair, your votes count and your voices are heard. Let your legislators know you want change. Tell your friends and family. Ask every political candidate you meet how they stand on the issue.
Please, help me restore my reputation. Demand an end to gerrymandering now.
Elbridge Gerry is channeled here by Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.