The past year has been 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, has not been so lucky. Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence, was a key supporter of the Bill of Rights, a U.S. vice president 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 Indiana are all too familiar with this undemocratic practice. This year, the General Assembly districts our legislature drew for themselves will deprive voters of choices at the ballot box. Voters in 46 percent of state legislative districts will see only one major party candidate on the ballot because no candidate from the other party decided that it was even worth trying to win. Election Day is still four months away and the results in almost half of our state legislative races have already been decided.
Gerrymandering has troubling consequences for Indiana’s democracy and economy. Last year, the legislature passed the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which allowed greater discrimination against members of the LGBT community. The reaction in Indiana and around the country was immediate and embarrassing. Thanks to the actions of extremist legislators representing districts designed to be uncompetitive, Indiana appeared to be the national capital of intolerance and bigotry. Businesses have threatened to pull conferences and major sporting events out of the state while demanding a legislative fix that would prohibit discrimination. In response, legislators have done nothing. Good jobs in addition to millions of dollars in business and tourism revenue remain at risk because the General Assembly has no political incentive to fix their costly mistake.
Indiana can do better. Other states have devised solutions that take power away from the 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 Indiana, we have a major opportunity for reform through the Special Interim Committee on Redistricting, which is a group of legislators and citizens currently working to write a reform proposal for introduction during the 2017 legislative session.
The Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting was founded by Common Cause Indiana and the League of Women Voters of Indiana in 2014 and has grown to include more than a dozen organizations, all working for a redistricting process that removes the conflict of interest inherent in putting legislators in control of redistricting. It won’t be an easy effort, but momentum for reform is building. We need all citizens concerned about Indiana’s future to join our fight for fair districts.
In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the right of citizens to create independent redistricting commissions. 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.
Elbridge Gerry’s life of service has been boiled down to one word — one mistake — that should have gone the way of witchcraft and 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 good consolation prize.