The last year has been pretty good to Alexander Hamilton. The $10 founding father without a father, Secretary of the Treasury, and Revolutionary War hero is the subject of a smash-hit musical that has reinvigorated interest in his life and done wonders for his legacy.
A different hero of the founding generation, Elbridge Gerry, born 272 years ago today, has not been so lucky. Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence, was a key supporter of the Bill of Rights, vice president of the United States, and governor of Massachusetts. All these accomplishments have been eclipsed by one decision he made while governor: Gerry approved Massachusetts State Senate districts in 1812 that sliced and diced the state in a deviously artistic way to secure Democratic-Republican control of the chamber, while thwarting his Federalist opponents.
A Boston Gazette cartoon compared one of the districts to a salamander and called the new creature a “Gerrymander.” The label stuck, and today, gerrymandering remains the preferred term to describe the drawing of legislative districts for political advantage.
The people of Delaware are all too familiar with this undemocratic practice. The representative and senatorial districts our legislators drew for themselves most likely contribute to our lack of choices at the ballot box.
As of right now, voters in 58 percent of Delaware’s state legislative districts will see only one major-party candidate on the ballot this November (25 out of 41 House races and 5 out of 11 Senate races) because no candidate from the other major party thinks it’s even worth trying to win. As a result, the majority of General Assembly races will be decided before anyone goes to the polls on Election Day.
When districts are gerrymandered to protect incumbents or majority-party power, it undermines democracy in two ways. First, when voters have no choice at the ballot box, they have no way to hold their representatives accountable for their job performance in office. Second, a lack of choice depresses participation. Why vote when the decision is preordained? To have democratic government, voters must pick their representatives, not vice versa.
Common Cause Delaware and other organizations have been calling for independent redistricting reform for years. In 2012, Senate [President] Pro Tem Patricia Blevins and her colleagues in the Senate passed a reform bill, but it died in the House due to the vehement opposition of Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf. He claims the legislature did a great job drawing districts, but those applauding his work are mostly incumbents and majority-party insiders, not everyday Delawareans.
Delaware can do better. Other states have devised solutions that take power away from incumbent politicians and give it back to the people. Across the nation, Americans standing up for fair representation now have the wind at their backs.
In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the right of citizens to create independent redistricting commissions by ballot initiative. In its opinion, the Court affirmed that “partisan gerrymanders are incompatible with democratic principles.” This decision protected independent citizen redistricting commissions that voters created in Arizona and California, in addition to reforms in other states.
In Florida, voters passed a ban on drawing districts for political advantage. When the legislature ignored this prohibition, two lawsuits brought by Fair Districts Now coalition partners Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of Florida resulted in new congressional and state Senate districts that will be in effect this year.
In Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia, courts have recently ordered the redrawing of maps, after ruling that packing minority voters into a small number of districts for partisan advantage violates the Constitution. Citizens are also standing up for their right to fair representation in ongoing cases challenging the constitutionality of a Republican gerrymander in Wisconsin and a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland.
Elbridge Gerry’s life of service has been boiled down to one word — one mistake — that should have gone the way of powdered wigs a long time ago. It is unlikely that “Gerry, the Musical” will ever find its way to Broadway, but restoring Gerry’s good name by ending gerrymandering before his next birthday seems like a pretty good consolation prize.
Delaware has missed the opportunity to be the first state to eliminate gerrymandering; let’s not be the last.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Claire Snyder-Hall is program director for Common Cause Delaware.