Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Birth of Ill Repute

Last week, Karl Kurtz of the National Conference of State Legislatures noted the anniversary of the birth of a practice that has increasingly become an albatross on our political system. On February 11, 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry constructed a district advantageous to his party, thus creating the "gerrymander." The monstrosity was so-named because the district had something approximating the shape of a salamander. Some districts so drawn today will narrow to the width of a highway before widening again to find voters of a particular stripe.

Modern demographics have turned gerrymandering into a grotesque art form, rendering most congressional and many state legislative districts uncompetitive. The result is a system in which large numbers of legislators are largely unaccountable to the voters that elect them. Gerrymandering also results in greater ideological divisions in legislatures, as the districts that result don't require those elected by them to appeal to centrist voters.

This past November, California passed a referendum calling for the drawing of districts by an independent commission, not by the legislature. One hopes that other states will follow their lead.


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