Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts signed a bill in 1812 that redistricted his state to benefit his party. One of the resulting contorted districts was said to resemble a salamander – hence the term Gerrymander.
Gerrymandering is generally considered as a tool to ensure that incumbents are re-elected to their seats with as little effort as possible. According to John Mackenzie of the University of Delaware ( www.udel.edu/johnmack/research/gerrymandering.pdf), “the purposes of gerrymandering are to maximize the number of legislative seats that can be won by the political party in charge of redrawing the district boundaries, and to create “safe” seats for the party’s incumbent legislators.”
Gerrymandering and the creation of a kind of nobility status for incumbent legislators has not made them more effective in “bringing home the bacon,” it has made them more doctrinal, and has led to much of the partisanship seen in the Congress today. Since there is little or no competition across parties in most districts, these elections are decided in the party primary where only registered party members receive a meaningful vote, thereby increasing the representation of extreme voters of both parties at the expense of moderates, especially those in the party in power. (See Friedman, John and Richard T. Holden, Optimal Gerrymandering in a Competitive Environment, February 22, 2008)
A great example is my own Congressmember – Yvette Clarke. Representative Clarke received 87 percent of the votes cast in New York District 11. The next highest vote getter received only 6 percent. Unfortunately, margins like this are not uncommon, and fortunately or unfortunately, according to Mackenzie’s research, safer seats do not mean that legislators are more effective in shifting federal funds to their district, even though these legislators by definition have greater seniority than those from non gerrymandered districts.
This year, the United States government will undertake the Decennial Census. This is an important event for researchers as much of the data that we use come from this undertaking. Thousands of workers and millions of mailings will be used to try to count and classify the population of the country. The data are then used to help allocated federal funds, determine the location of schools and courthouses, and redraw legislative district boundaries throughout the country.
We believe that this is one reason that Congress has become so partisan and why the party in power (no matter if it is the Democrats or Republicans) use their majority to push through legislation that is neither popular (think Health Care), nor practical (The Iraq War). Controversial issues like same sex marriage, confiscatory taxation of certain groups, or stem cell research will be determined more by the party in power than by swaying individual legislators. On the other hand, since members are more doctrinal, there may be more opportunities for well versed government affairs professionals to influence policy – particularly in business and regulatory issues.