A fresh look at gerrymandering

Gerrymander: to divide a geographic area into voting districts in a way that gives a party an unfair advantage in elections.

In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill authorizing the revision of voting districts in his state. Members of Gerry’s party redrew them in a way that secured their own representation in the state senate. Out of Gerry’s home county, they carved an unlikely-looking district resembling a salamander. The shape of the district caught the eye of the painter Gilbert Stuart. He decorated the outline of the district with a head, wings, and claws. The image he created first appeared in the March 26, 1812, edition of the Boston Gazette, with this title: “The Gerrymander. A New Species of Monster, which appeared in the Essex South District in Jan. 1812.” Gerry ran for re-election in 1812, but outrage about his use of the technique we now call gerrymandering doubtless played a role in his defeat.

The League of Women Voters promotes participation in electoral processes and, just as importantly, processes that are fair and truly representative of the wishes of voters. Unfortunately, modern computer mapping systems have transformed the practice of gerrymandering into an effective science. This has allowed the party that is in power at the time new districts are created to manipulate the system, increasing the likelihood that it will stay in power.

According to Open Democracy, which promotes equal representation for all voters, gerrymandering is a problem in our state: “The current redistricting process in New Hampshire dilutes the power of the average voter. In 2012 (after the 2010 census and subsequent redistricting plan), Democratic candidates for State Senate cumulatively won more votes than Republican candidates. However, because Democratic voters had been largely packed into a few districts, their votes have less influence….” Republican Seth Coen reacted to a court ruling upholding the plan: “The courts punted, the people lose. ‘Constitutional’ doesn’t make it the best plan, the right plan, or even a fair and just plan. The people deserved better, and they weren’t served.”

Although the next census is almost two years away, now is the time to become educated about this old “new species of monster” because:

All 400 seats in New Hampshire’s House of Representatives are up for election this fall.

The next U.S. census will take place in 2020, and the redrawing of district lines will be informed by the results of the election and the census.

Our Legislature is currently responsible for drawing district boundaries.

As Lord Acton observed over a century ago, “Power corrupts.” Unless there are rules and systems to keep power in check, those who enjoy dominance at any particular time are prone to try rigging the system in order to maintain their power. This is antithetical to our democratic ideals.

The risk of the majority party gerrymandering districts is not merely theoretical. In several states that have allowed this abuse of power to take place, “safe districts” proliferate, and turnover of representation from those districts in those states has become almost non-existent.

Last spring, the NH General Court considered bills intended to reform the redistricting process and curb gerrymandering. Two of them proposed the creation of an independent commission tasked with drawing district lines. HB203 was defeated 190-164, and SB107 was defeated 14-9. Another bill, HB320, which proposed a mathematical algorithm to determine district boundaries, did not survive committee review. It would use population, existing borders, and contiguity, to define voting districts, reducing political bias and increasing fairness.

Also last year, the US Supreme Court accepted the case of Gill v. Whitford, which originated in Wisconsin following the 2010 election. The majority Republicans designed district maps that created “safe” districts for state and federal Congressional delegations. After a series of challenges, a District court ruled that gerrymandering for political purposes, no less than for racial purposes, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. In accepting the case, the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to establish standards to determine whether partisan gerrymanders violate Constitutional protections of our voting rights.

Increasingly, gerrymandering in New Hampshire is producing districts that are designed to skew election results toward the party in power. It is also clear that there are remedies that will restore the focus of elections from winning and holding onto power to true representation. There is time before the next election and the next legislative session to design better bills, make a strong case for fairness, and take other actions that bring districts back in line with democracy. It is better to take care of the problem now in ways that work well for our state than to wait for lengthy, costly judicial decisions to prescribe changes for us.

Next month, we will describe in more detail what we and our representatives can do to ensure that the dread Gerrymander does not damage our cherished political institutions.

Unique among all the states, New Hampshire’s Executive Branch includes an Executive Council. Council districts are also drawn in the state Legislature and approved by the governor. Each district represents roughly 1/5 of the population, or approximately 264,000 citizens, as of the 2010 census. Note the striking similarity between our current Second District and Gilbert Stuart’s Gerrymander.

The LWV, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. Residents of Nashua and the greater Nashua area who are interested in working in their local community to educate and inform the electorate on issues of local importance are encouraged to attend. Any person 16 or older, male or female, may become a League member.