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Gerrymandering Creates Perils For Schemers
Will Bagley
Published: 09/30/2001 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

Poor Elbridge Gerry. A Harvard graduate and wealthy codfish exporter, Gerry served in the Massachusetts Legislature as an ally of Samuel Adams and the patriots resisting British tyranny. He was a Continental congressman and barely escaped the English dragnet that ignited the American Revolution when the Redcoats shed blood at Lexington and Concord in 1775. Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence and became known as the "soldiers' friend" for his work in the Continental Congress. After the war, he participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and fought for the Bill of Rights, although one colleague noted that he "objected to everything he did not propose."

Gerry served in the first U.S. Congress, but his natural aristocratic haughtiness undermined his popularity among Massachusetts's voters, who rejected him four times as a candidate for governor. Finally elected in 1810, he presided over partisan warfare about how to redraw legislative districts. Governor Gerry's party, the Democratic-Republicans, drew bizarre district boundaries to eliminate the Federalists. He did not encourage these shenanigans, but he did sign the bill into law. The Federalists had a field day.

Artist and political cartoonist Gilbert Stuart, whose portrait of President Washington now graces the dollar bill, adorned the boundaries of one district with a head, wings and claws, noting its resemblance to a salamander. According to legend, Stuart's Boston editor said, "Salamander? No, no, no. Let's call it a Gerrymander!" The word first appeared in April 1812 and came to mean "the action of shaping a district to gain political advantage." (The term also points up the pernicious troublemaking of evil political cartoonists.)

Gerry went on to serve as vice president under President Madison until he died on his way to the Senate in 1814. Despite a distinguished career and his lack of enthusiasm for the practice itself, Gerry (whose name was actually pronounced "Gary") would forever be remembered as the man who put the Gerry in gerrymandering.

The Redistricting Task Force for the National Conference of State Legislatures defines gerrymandering as "the drawing of electoral district lines in a manner that discriminates against a political party." Naturally, Utah's benevolent rulers would never, ever engage in such devious, discredited partisan scheming. How do we know? They've said so, and politicians never lie. We must believe them and ignore their screwy maps. Should our fearless leaders ever be tempted to deprive Utahns of fair representation, they should know that gerrymandering often backfires, as it did in Idaho a century ago.

Historian Ron Hatzenbuehler notes that the Mormons of Bear Lake and Oneida counties voted as a bloc and helped the Democratic Party control Idaho territorial politics. "If Mormons voted," Hatzenbuehler observed, "they would vote Democratic. If they voted Democratic, they would jeopardize the movement to statehood since the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress after the elections of 1888." Anti-Mormon Republicans disenfranchised anyone who believed in polygamy and created Bingham County to limit Mormon political influence. It's a good thing for Republicans that Idaho Mormons have short memories.

Recent political history provides even more telling examples of the perils of gerrymandering. Before 1990 census redistricting, only one of Georgia's ten congressional representatives was a Republican. Despising this pernicious threat to unity, the Democrats redrew his district to eliminate him. It didn't work. Today, eight of Georgia's eleven delegates are Republican. "Ten years ago," said one Democratic strategist, "it never occurred to anyone that we might not be in the majority," forever and ever. Who was the legislator Georgia Democrats targeted? Newt Gingrich.

Will Bagley is a Utah historian and author who resides in Salt Lake City.

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