The Slaying of the Gerrymander
EVER since the year 1812, when Governor Gerry, of Massachusetts, signer of the Declaration of Independence and doer of many other worthy things, was damned to everlasting fame ” by the verbalizing of his name, the “ gerrymander ” has been a source of much trouble to the lovers of political liberty. The anti-Federalists, during their temporary ascendency at that time, established a precedent which has been as a shining mark for every political trickster in the land down to this day ; for, by cutting up old districts and dismembering counties, those astute politicians were able so to reconstruct the senatorial districts of the State that in the following election, though they polled but 50,164 votes, they secured twenty-nine Senators, while the Federalists, with 51,766 votes, got but eleven Senators. Such a result is one long to be remembered by those who look to their ancestors as the source of all wisdom and virtue ; it is an everpresent incentive to the ambitious in evil ways. The fantastic figure outlined by the district which the Republicans made from portions of Worcester and Essex counties, and dubbed by the artist Gilbert Stuart a “ Salamander,” and by Mr. Russell, editor of the Columbian Centinel, a “ Gerrymander,” has been duplicated with more or less fidelity many times in the various States, as one party or another has gained the ascendency. And while the zealous followers of those old-time political assassins may not have turned out anything quite so artistic, zoölogically considered, it must be admitted that, diabolically, they have been quite as ingenious.
The term “ gerrymander ” applies today, as it did in 1812, to that action whereby a majority in a legislature so arranges the districts of the political unit that it can secure a much greater part of the representation than its vote entitles it to. These electoral districts, whether they be for aldermen, members of the legislature, or Congressmen, are supposed to contain a uniform population, so nearly as may be, and each is to be composed of contiguous territory whose people have common interests. But it will readily be seen that, as contiguous territory and uniformity of population are the only elements enjoined by the Constitution, the legislature can, by running the district lines in and out among the counties, arrange them in such a manner that the result will be altogether different from what it should be. As the votes in any given locality do not vary much from year to year, save when exceptional storm waves sweep over the country, it can be determined to a nicety just what results will follow from any given apportionment. Whenever a party, in apportioning a State, sees fit to throw the strongholds of its opponent into a few districts, and distributes its own votes so evenly throughout the remaining ones that they will constitute a bare majority in each, it can secure the same results as did the Massachusetts Jeffersonian Republicans in 1812.
Let Ohio serve as an illustration. The parties in that State are so evenly divided that it has long been the scene of intense political activity, and offers a most congenial climate for the gerrymander. In the election of Congressmen in 1880, the Republicans polled 50.9 per cent of the vote, and got seventy-five per cent of the representation, while the Democrats, with 47.8 per cent of the vote, secured only twenty-five per cent of the representation. The Democrats averaged 68,114 votes to a Congressman, the Republicans 24,203 ; it required nearly three times as many votes in one party as in the other to elect a representative. The census giving Ohio another Congressman, the State was divided into twenty-one districts. At the following election, in 1882, the Republicans, with 46.9 per cent of the vote, secured but 38.1 per cent of the Congressmen, while the Democrats, with 50.3 per cent of the vote, got 61.9 per cent of the representation. This apportionment being unsatisfactory. the Democrats rearranged the districts just before the election of 1884. and were unintentionally quite generous to their opponents; for in the election of that year the Republicans got 47.6 per cent of the representation with a vote of 50.7 per cent, whereas the Democrats got but 52.4 per cent of the Congressmen with a vote of forty-eight per cent. But this was altogether too close to justice to suit the Ohio idea; it looked entirely too much like a representative government. The Republicans, therefore, rearranged the districts in the spring of 1886 in such a manner that in the fall elections of that year they got 71.4 per cent of the representation with 48.5 per cent of the vote, while their opponents, with 46.9 per cent of the vote, got but 28.6 per cent of the congressional delegation ; the Republicans averaged 22,404 votes to a Congressman, and the Democrats 54.273. For some unknown reason the apportionment was not changed by the succeeding legislature, probably owing to the fact that the Republicans, who still controlled the legislature, thought it best to let well enough alone. With 49.7 per cent of the vote, the Republicans in 1888 obtained 76.2 per cent of the representation, while the Democrats, with 47.2 per cent of the vote, got but 23.8 per cent. The Republicans averaged 26,032 votes per Congressman, the Democrats 79,128; the Republican voter having more than three times as much representation in Congress as the Democratic voter. This seems to have been the high-water mark. The Democrats, though smarting from the depredations of the last gerrymander. reapportioned the State in 1890; but their hand had lost its cunning, for, notwithstanding the tidal wave which swept over the country in that year, they secured only 66.7 per cent of the representation with 47.5 per cent of the total vote, while the Republicans had 33.3 per cent of the Congressmen with a vote of 49.1 per cent. The Democrats averaged 25,109 votes per Congressman; the Republicans, 51,803. The present legislature is Republican, and is busily engaged in reconstructing the districts, and the political world awaits with impatient curiosity the result of its labors. Thus the State has been fought over for years, — gerrymandered and re - gerrymandered, and gerrymandered again; each party striving, as opportunity offered, to surpass the villainies of its opponent.
As a mathematical exercise, these jugglings with apportionments are good ; as a crazy-quilt pattern, the congressional district maps rank high, for the running of their lines would put to shame the maker of the Cretan labyrinth; or such ingenuity may serve as an amusement for children and feeble - minded statesmen. But what in the name of political integrity has this to do with popular government ? Are the citizens of this country such children or fools as to imagine for a moment that political liberty and morality can thrive, or even survive, in such an atmosphere ? Or are they reckless knaves engaged in internecine strife ?
By means of the all-potent gerrymander, the party controlling the legislature can not only deprive its opponent of a just share in the representation, but it can so make up the districts that a particularly obnoxious, because powerful, opponent will be overcome by an adverse majority. It was thus that Major McKinley was deprived of his seat in Congress by the Democrats, at the last election. In the same way the Republican legislature of Pennsylvania kept Mr. Randall in Congress; a protectionist Democrat of his ability and prominence being of more use to them than any available Republican. It is thus that any man may be kept in or out of Congress as suits the ends of the party making the apportionments; men of national reputation are at the mercy of the petty politicians who can by hook or by crook get themselves into the state legislatures.
The political jugglery practiced in such States as Ohio is responsible for what may be called the artificial gerrymander; but there is another and more common form of disfranchisement, due to what may be called the natural gerrymander. A recent writer on this subject says that “ a State may be fairly apportioned, and yet the minority party be able to elect none of the Congressmen, or a smaller number than its vote would seem to entitle it to.” To say that a party may fairly be denied what it is entitled to is only to declare that water will not seek its level when frozen. And yet men who masquerade in the guise of statesmen accept as a perfect political system that in which a party may poll a third or two fifths of the vote year after year without securing any share in the representation. Under that system, it often happens that the voters are so evenly divided throughout the State that, no matter how the districts are made up, the majority party in the State will have a majority in each district. Such is the condition in Kansas, Minnesota, Texas, and other States. Again it may happen that the strength of one party lies within a very small compass, while that of the other is evenly distributed throughout the State. Thus in New York the Democratic strength lies mostly in and about New York city, while that of the Republicans is spread over the whole State. The Democrats often carry the State, but seldom get a majority in the legislature or in the congressional delegation.
But the difference between the natural and the artificial gerrymander is merely the distinction between manslaughter and murder. From a moral point of view it is very important to the slayer which term is applied to his deed, but it is the same in either case to the victim, — he is dead. The men who apportioned Massachusetts and Kansas may have done so with the utmost regard for justice and fair play, while those who arranged the districts in Ohio may have purposely distorted them ; but the result is the same in both cases,— the victim is dead.
Much has been said of late about the gerrymander, — a little about the natural, and a good deal about the artificial, —and some spasmodic efforts have been made to destroy the beast. Many means have been proposed, but most of them have been in the nature of palliatives ; they signally fail to go to the root of the matter. Sometimes it is proposed to raise the people to such a degree of political integrity that they will not tolerate such doings. As well try to mend the wrong-doings in the city’s police department by making the citizens so honest that policemen will be unnecessary. It has also been proposed that Congress take charge of the congressional apportionments ; but it may be anticipated that this would merely change the scene of action without material benefit. Another proposition is that Congressmen be elected by majority vote from the State at large ; but this would only destroy the disease by killing the patient, since, under such a plan, the minority party would have no representation at all. Still another suggestion is to give the voters first and second choice ; this applies only to the majority party, for the minority has no choice at all. The cumulative vote has also been proposed, and was recommended by a special committee of the Senate in 1869. This is a long way in advance of the other proposals, as it would stop gerrymandering and give the minority parties representation, but the plan is objectionable because so wasteful. A party might throw all its votes for one man when it could elect two or it might divide its vote between two men and fail to get either when it could have had one ; its uncertainty is a grave defect. Many other schemes have been proposed, but all of them are more or less weighed down by fundamental defects, save one, — the quota system.
There are various ways of applying the quota system, but the simplest, and for that reason perhaps the best, may be briefly stated thus : abolish the electoral districts entirely, and allow all parties in the State to put tickets in the field, each containing as many names as the party sees fit, up to the whole number to be elected. This of course includes tickets put up by independent organizations and the minority parties. The voter selects his ticket and votes it as a whole, but marks thereon the name of the candidate whom he prefers. When all the ballots cast in the State for Congressmen are counted, the whole number is divided by the number of men to be elected, which gives the quota, or number of votes necessary to elect one candidate. Each party vote is now divided by this quota, which gives to it the number of Congressmen to which it is entitled ; the successful candidates of the party being those who stand highest in order of preference. If the party has a sufficient number of votes to fill one quota, that name on the ticket which is the choice of the greatest number of voters is taken ; if two quotas are filled, the first and second go in, and so on. Thus in 1890 there were 739,063 votes cast for Congressmen in Ohio. Dividing this by twenty-one, the number of men to be elected, gives a quota of 35,193, the number of votes necessary to elect one Congressman. The Republicans polled 362,624 votes, which, divided by the quota (35,193), gives ten full quotas and a remainder of 10,694. The Democrats cast 351,528 votes, which, by the same process, gives nine full quotas and a remainder of 34,791. The Prohibitionists polled 21,891 votes, and the United Labor men 3020. There being still two men to be chosen, they are taken from the parties having the largest unfilled quotas, the Democratic and Prohibition. This gives a congressional delegation of ten Republicans, ten Democrats, and one Prohibitionist, instead of the present one of seven Republicans and fourteen Democrats.
The evils springing from the natural and from the artificial gerrymander are fundamental in their nature. All politicians might be as honest as saints, and yet the bad results of the present system would remain. The district lines gird about the body politic and hamper it in its movements just as do ligatures about, the human body; and as the one prevents the flow of life - giving blood and causes disease, so the other, by preventing the expression of new ideas, prepares the way for corruption and decay. Remove these artificial restraints, and let the people in all parts of the State unite as their mutual interests dictate, and elect such representatives as they think best. When the change was made, in 1842, from electing Congressmen from the State at large by a majority vote, the district plan was the best known, and was a great improvement over the old way. But political science as well as physical science has made great progress in the last half century. It is not enough to say that the district plan is better than that which it displaced ; nothing but the best is good enough. The quota system is as simple as the present one; it is as exact as it is possible to be without becoming complicated and cumbersome ; and it requires the least possible change in present laws and customs. It would destroy utterly the gerrymander, natural and artificial, — there would be nothing left to gerrymander. It would remove from the hands of petty politicians the power to say who shall represent the people. That the present state of affairs is unnatural and dangerous, not only Ohio, which elected sixteen Republicans and five Democrats in 1888, and seven Republicans and fourteen Democrats in 1890, with a change of only a few thousand votes in the whole State, but Indiana, New York, and many other States testify. Such doings may be good politics, but they are far from being good morals ; they may serve temporary party ends, but, if persisted in, they will surely bring disaster upon the country which tolerates them. Men may try to ease their consciences by thinking that the other party would and does do the same thing when it gets the opportunity, or that their party must gerrymander this State because the other party has gerrymandered that; they may try to console themselves with the reflection that all is fair in love and politics, or that the general average is not so had as it might be; but it will not do. So surely as there is order in nature, so surely as things make for righteousness, all this evil work will have to be undone. Nothing is lost in nature, nothing wasted ; there are no short cuts in the journey of progress ; every false step must be retraced, every false deed done aright. The plea of ignorance will not avail. The crime of chattel slavery was expiated in blood and tears none the less because people believed in human bondage ; the law of nature had been violated, and she exacted the full penalty. What nature demanded of past generations she will exact of this and of those to come. The class legislation which has made millionaires of some and paupers of many, which has conferred public wealth upon private individuals, and which has brought the country to a grave social and industrial crisis will not go unrebuked because done in ignorance. Much of this is due to the fact that the representatives do not represent the people. Voters have been cooped up in political pens, constructed by the ingenuity of the leaders of the dominant party, where they have been as helpless as in an Asiatic despotism. From the very nature of the case, independent political action has been impossible. The saving remnant has been cast aside, trampled on or ignored. New ideas which might have leavened the lump have failed of utterance. Politics in close States has degenerated into contests between political adventurers, while in those States where one party or another has a decided majority stagnation and decay naturally follow.
The disease is self-evident, the cause is patent, the remedy is adequate.