By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Elbridge Gerry served as the nation’s fifth vice president, was governor of Massachusetts and signed the Declaration of Independence.
A man of principle, he refused to sign the U.S. Constitution because the document did not include the all-important Bill of Rights that provides many of the freedoms we hold so dear.
But Gerry’s claim to fame may be that his name morphed into a political term that is still in use today, though many would say in a disparaging way. As governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Gerry signed a bill that redistricted the state Senate in a manner viewed to help his Democratic-Republican Party. A Federalist newspaper, reacting to the redistricting, coined the phrase gerrymandering.
To this day the term is used to refer to political districts drawn to aid a particular party.
The nation witnessed a good example of modern-day gerrymandering in the just-completed elections. While, believe it or not, some votes still are being tabulated, it appears the Republicans will capture about 234 of the 435 seats in the United States House.
Despite having a sizable majority, one of the largest ever held by Republicans, they actually lost the popular vote on Election Day. According to projections by the Princeton Election Consortium, 50.3 percent of the people who cast votes in congressional races on Nov. 6 voted for the Democratic candidate. The Consortium goes on to say the “discrepancy between popular votes and seat counts is the largest since 1950.”
While the Republicans will lose seats in the House this year, they will still maintain their majority. Because of that, the Republican Party should send a special note of thanks to the descendants of Elbridge Gerry.
There are some glaring examples of his work this year. Take Michigan, for instance. President Barack Obama captured 54 percent of the vote in Michigan to win re-election. A Republican presidential nominee has not carried the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Yet, only five of the state’s 14 congressional seats were won by Democrats on Nov. 6.
The same is true in Pennsylvania, where Obama won 52 percent of the vote, and like Michigan, has been won by the Democratic presidential nominee for six consecutive elections. Still, Republicans won 14 of the state’s 19 congressional seats this year. The key is that in the 2010 mid-term elections when Republicans picked up 60-plus seats to grab hold of the U.S. Congress is that they also captured numerous state legislatures.
And those Republican legislatures got to redraw the state’s congressional districts to match popular shifts found by the 2010 census. Elections do have consequences. We saw that in Mississippi recently.
In Mississippi in 2011, Republicans complained that the Democratic majority in the House was unfairly gerrymandering the 122 state House districts. The Republican majority in the Senate was able to stop the House Democrats’ redistricting effort.
Later that year, the Republicans won a majority in the House. They then did what they were criticizing Democrats for trying to do – they drew the districts to their benefit. Under the plan drawn by House Republicans earlier this year and approved, it will be difficult for Democrats to regain the majority in that chamber in the foreseeable future. If the plan drawn by House Democrats in 2011 had become law, they would have had a fighting chance.
The courts essentially have said drawing districts in a manner to benefit a political party is OK.
Politics is often the art of subtleties, but at least as often it is the craft of pure power – a numbers game. That is the nature of politics. In 2010, people who supported the Republicans came out to vote at a far greater rate than did the Democratic constituency.
On election day 2012, the Democrats returned to the polls at a far greater rate than they did in 2010 and at a significantly larger rate than did people who tend to vote Republican.
But what happened on Election Day in 2010 provided a level of protection for House Republicans in 2012.
That is just the way Elbridge Gerry drew it up in 1812.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (601) 353-3119.