1. manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.
2. achieve (a result) by such manipulation: a total freedom to gerrymander the results
ORIGIN: Early 19th century. From the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts + salamander, from the supposed similarity between a salamander and the shape of a new voting district on a map drawn when he was in office (1812), the creation of which was felt to favor his party. The map (with claws, wings, and fangs added), was published in the Boston Weekly Messenger, with the title “The Gerry-mander.”
What do Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin all have in common? At first glance you might be tempted to say “very little,” but when you look more closely you will find that when it comes to current politics they have quite a lot in common:
- All five voted for President Obama in the 2012 election.
- All five have majority Republican delegations in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- All five have Republican governors.
- All five have nominal Republican control of the state legislature (all except Virginia have Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Virginia’s state senate is tied 20-20, but since the lieutenant governor, who would break ties, is a Republican, control of the chamber belongs to the GOP.)
The national Republican party apparently has decided to use certain states as “laboratories” for experiments with new schemes to elect GOP presidential candidates even if they lose the popular vote.
The process seems to go something like this:
- Elect Republican state legislators and governors.
- Manipulate state election districts to guarantee continuing Republican legislative control, and where possible draw the new districts in a way that creates a “super-majority” that would be veto-proof, in the event the state ever elects a Democratic governor.
- Gerrymander U.S. House districts to guarantee the state’s congressional delegation is majority Republican.
- Change state election law as concerns how the state awards electoral votes in presidential elections.
Thanks to a motivated right wing base and low Democratic turnout in the 2010 midterm election Republicans had an easy time achieving item #1 of the process, replacing Democratic governors in all five of these states with the current Republican administrations. (Virginia has odd year elections for governor. Bob McDonnell, the current governor, was elected in 2009.) Also, after the 2008 elections Democrats held a majority in one house of the legislature in these states. All five emerged from the 2010 elections with full Republican control of their legislatures.
Once the new governors and legislators took office, the next step was to redistrict both the state election districts and U.S. House districts to assure continued Republican control. The table below shows how successful they were in accomplishing this in terms of federal congressional districts.
Notice that in three of the five states Democratic House candidates received more votes in total than their Republican competitors did in the 2012 elections. Also notice that in the two states where Republicans did receive more votes–Virginia and Ohio–they came out of the election with control of a much higher percentage of seats than their percentage of the vote.
It is worth noting in fairness that Republicans have not always behaved this way. Following the 2000 elections, the last time reapportionment was done, our five states all had Republican governors, and Republicans held control of all five state legislatures except Wisconsin, where Democrats held an edge in the state House. You can see from the table that in each case the percentage of congressional seats held by each party before the latest round of redistricting was much closer to the percentage of votes received by that party than is now the case.
After creating safe Republican congressional districts Republicans in 2012 set about making it harder for traditional Democratic constituencies to vote with an assortment of proposed voter ID laws. However, this failed to have the desired result as courts struck down some of the laws, and in Michigan Republican governor Rick Snyder, in what was perhaps a momentary attack of conscience, actually vetoed a strict ID law.
It is not completely clear whether changes in electoral college rules for some states were on the drawing board before the 2012 election, but it didn’t take long after the dust had settled for RNC chairman Reince Priebus to make the following comment about a proposal to award Wisconsin’s electoral votes by congressional district: “I think it’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at.”
Republicans have a bit of precedent for this move: currently two states award electoral votes by congressional district–Maine and Nebraska. Nebraska, which is reliably red in presidential elections, changed its method of awarding electoral votes in 1996, and Maine has allocated its votes this way since 1972. It is worth noting that in both of these states it is typical for the same candidate to win all the congressional districts (Maine has 2 congressional districts, Nebraska has 3) but in 2008 President Obama won a single electoral vote from Nebraska’s Second Congressional District.
Exactly how the scheme would work depends on the way each state chooses to allocate its electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, one vote is awarded to the winner of each congressional district, with two “bonus” votes being given to the candidate who receives the most popular votes statewide. But in Virginia, the proposal is to award electoral votes by congressional district, then award the two bonus votes to the candidate who wins the most congressional districts.
Republicans realize that this would almost guarantee that the candidate who wins the most electoral votes would more often than not lose the popular vote, and that that candidate would almost always be the Republican. Had this system been in place nationwide for the 2012 election Mitt Romney would have won the presidency, despite losing the nationwide popular vote by four percentage points. Some Republican operatives have argued that awarding electoral votes by congressional district would empower residents who live in a state that tends to vote differently than does their district. However, by making that argument they conveniently ignore that the most equitable way to empower voters is to eliminate the electoral college altogether, or to move, as some states have done in recent years, to award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote.
Thanks to the light being shed on this by the media, some Republican politicians seem to be getting cold feet. But it is not uncommon for Republicans to try and sneak controversial measures through when they think the public is not paying attention. Witness what happened in Virginia on Inauguration Day, when state senator Henry Marsh was in Washington, giving them a temporary 20-19 edge in the state senate, and they passed a rewrite of a 2011 redistricting plan that took away a Democratic state senate district in the western part of the state. Despite recent statements from some elected Republicans who are apparently uncomfortable with this sort of unabashed power grab, this is a story that will likely continue to develop, and it is entirely possible that when they think the uproar has died down one or more states will quietly make this change.