Editorial: Let’s slay Gerry’s salamander

  • A portrait of Gov. Elbridge Gerry hangs in a hallway at the state house in Boston. AP

Friday, June 23, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk lately about rigged elections. Did Russia meddle in the presidential race? Does the superdelegate system disenfranchise voters? Is there massive voter fraud in the United States, even here in first-in-the-nation New Hampshire?

While Russia continues to dominate headlines and states enact ever-more-restrictive rules on voting, the American political system continues to support two of the most insidious methods of election fraud and disenfranchisement: big money and partisan redistricting. While the U.S. Supreme Court played a major role in opening the floodgates for political spending with its Citizens United ruling, it now has a chance to take a stand against the unfair legislative redistricting process known as partisan gerrymandering when it considers the Wisconsin case of Gill v. Whitford.

The term “gerrymander” dates back to the early 19th century and is a mashup of the name “Gerry” (as in Elbridge Gerry, the ninth governor of Massachusetts) and “salamander” (as in the partisan, amphibian-shaped district he signed off on in 1812). In New Hampshire, as in most states, redistricting is conducted by the state Legislature, with the map redrawn every 10 years upon completion of the U.S. Census. That means the party in control following the 2020 Census can create districts that look like Rorschach tests so long as the new map increases the chance that it will stay in power.

Recently, partisan gerrymandering has been connected to Republicans more than Democrats, but that’s not because they are more devious when it comes to creating electoral advantages. It’s just that in the last round, they were better at it. If you think Democrats are innocent, just take a look at Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District (held by Democrat John Sarbanes for a decade), which the Washington Post called the second most gerrymandered district in the country, just behind North Carolina’s 12th District.

While the Supreme Court has ruled racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, it has not been nearly as clear regarding partisan redistricting. But that could all change with Gill v. Whitford.

We won’t get too deep into the weeds on Gill, but in a nutshell the case is a challenge to the redistricting conducted by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Assembly in 2011 following the 2010 Census. The Democratic voters who filed the lawsuit said the map violated the First Amendment (discrimination based on political viewpoint) and the 14th Amendment (equal protection), and they pointed to something called the “efficiency gap” to support their argument. The efficiency gap refers to the number of wasted votes created through the “packing and cracking” of districts. For example, if the majority Party X “packs” a district so that the minority Party Y wins 5,000 to 1,000, they create 3,999 wasted Party Y votes. Meanwhile, they can “crack” Party Y voters by creating districts that look like Gerry’s salamander, for example. In a 2-1 ruling, a Wisconsin court agreed with the plaintiffs. On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the appeal.

Most political debates these days are hyper-partisan. Look at just about any issue and you can see a clear line dividing left and right, red and blue. But with partisan gerrymandering, it’s not Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other; it’s simply a matter of fair vs. unfair. Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in Gill v. Whitford, New Hampshire lawmakers owe it to Republican and Democratic voters alike to create a more equitable way of drawing district maps, whether by way of an algorithm like the one proposed (and killed) this session or through the creation of an independent commission. Maybe the state’s Republicans don’t see it that way from their seat of power, but we’re certain they would gain a new perspective if they found themselves in the minority following the 2020 Census.