Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Gerrymander

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 25, 2013

From time to time, you may hear the term gerrymander or gerrymandering and wonder what it means. The expression is both a verb and a noun: the action of shaping a district to gain political advantage, and any representative elected from such a district by that method.

On March 1, 2006 the New York Times ran an Editorial that addressed the issue of the redrawn election districts in Texas in 2003. It was alleged that the new boundaries gave an unfair and unconstitutional edge to the Republican party and allegedly violated the Voting Rights Act. The piece was entitled:

The Texas Gerrymander

Backing up to January 24, 1961 the Deseret News published a news article about a decision arrived at by U.S. Judge Irving R. Kaufman with regards to school district lines for the 1961-1962 school year. Parents of Lincoln School felt that their constitutional rights, as well as their children’s, had been violated. The article was brief and stated:

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the New Rochelle, N.Y. board of education gerrymandered school district lines to establish an all-Negro school in that suburban Westchester County City.

The expression wasn’t just used in American newspapers, and found its way into the Sydney Morning Herald of February 17, 1927 in a news story about the House of Lords in London, England two days earlier. Readers were greeted with this introduction to the matter:

In the House Of Commons to-day during the debate on the Estimates a discussion arose about reform of the House of Lords. Colonel Gerald Hurts (Con.) moved a motion in favour or reducing the hereditary character of the Upper House. Professor Lees Smith (Labour) moved an amendment declaring that the proposed changes in the House of Lords were intended to gerrymander the Constitution in the interests of the Conservative party.

When the Quebec Saturday Budget newspaper of November 19, 1892 ran a story entitled, “Looks Like A Gerrymander” readers were treated to detailed information about the official returns of the U.S. Presidential election. Among many details provided were these:

It is worthy of remark that at the election Cleveland’s total of pluralities in all the States combined amounted to 576,158, while Harrison’s was only 478,141. That in face of this Harrison secured about 50 per cent more votes than Cleveland in the electoral college would seem to show that the Republicans are well posted in the mysteries of the gerrymander. The showing was something similar at the present election.

But while the term was understood in the major English-speaking countries, history proves that the term gerrymander was inspired by an 1812 Massachusetts redistricting scheme that favored the party of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry.

In April 1812, one of the redrawn election districts (created by members of Governor Gerry’s party in 1812) reminded newspaper painter Gilbert Stuart so much of a salamander, that he added a head, wings, and claws to the outline. The creature was quickly dubbed by the Editor of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper as a Gerrymander and not a salamander.

Originally, the term referred only to the district, however, within the month on May 12, 1812 the Massachusetts Spy newspaper reported:

An official statement of the returns of voters for senators give[s] twenty nine friends of peace, and eleven gerrymanders.

This is the definitive starting point for the word gerrymander.

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