Opinion: Who is Gerry Mander?

By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders

Well, actually, Gerry Mander is not a who but a what.

Gerrymander is the practice of reapportioning voters by drawing political districts from the local level to congressional seats that are designed to favor one political party over the other or even one particular officeholder, and in so doing virtually preordain the outcome of elections. It was coined after Governor Gerry of Massachusetts who engineered such a plan for his state legislature early in the 19th century. Evidently one district was drawn in such a way that it resembled a salamander… hence gerrymander!

This practice is as old as politics itself, but of late it seems to have become more sophisticated and more pervasive, so much so that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case when the Court reconvenes in October to determine whether efforts at redrawing political maps violates the United States Constitution.

Every ten years after the national census is completed, political district lines are required to be re-drawn so that districts comprise approximately the same number of persons. This is to insure that the power of the voters is evenly distributed.

A decision by the high Court in 2018 could have the most profound impact on our elections and which party controls the Congress and various state legislatures. It could be a game-changing political earthquake.

I can say with complete certainty that the practice of gerrymandering is alive and well here in New York State. As a member of the State Assembly for 28 years, I experienced three re-mappings.

In one such reapportionment, I gained thousands of certain ethnic voters from one of my legislative neighbors. It was feared that without shedding those voters, he might lose the next election. That is how things are done. Each state legislature is responsible for designing their own district’s configuration as well as the congressional districts in their states. The results of those redesigns every ten years translates into political control. And political control by one party or the other translates to the kind of policies that are enacted.

Even a child who looks at these maps will immediately notice that they are very weirdly shaped. There is very little geometry involved. I remember one particular district oddly resembled a rifle. The districts fit together like a dysfunctional jigsaw puzzle. They have the virtue of being practically equal in population, but their main function is to achieve political advantage for one party or one individual by creating the most favorable voter base to win elections.

This is done by sometimes grouping like-minded voters into the same district, or at times dispersing those voters into other contiguous districts, thereby diluting their voting influence. In so doing this process subtly robs voters of real input into election outcomes.

If the Supreme Court rules against this kind of gerrymandering, the reverberations will be enormous. It would eventually cause radical changes in the districts of thousands of public officials across the country, undoubtedly including New York State.

Our excellent State Senator Brad Hoylman inherited a district that extends from the Hudson River to the East River in order to try to make room for a Republican State Senate district on the Upper East Side. He might find his constituency restored as a purely West Side district so that a more geographical East Side Senate District can also be restored. Losing Senator Hoylman by returning his district back across Fifth Avenue would be a loss to our community, but it would be a win for the integrity of democracy.

One thought on “Opinion: Who is Gerry Mander?

  1. I wouldn’t depend on any redistricting decisions from this Supreme Court. Come 2020 I hope the Democrats aren’t caught flatfooted the way they were in the 2010 election when the national Republican Party poured tons of money into state and local elections in order to tell lots unchallenged lies and take control of state legislatures, thereby taking control of the upcoming redistricting/gerrymandering that would apply for the next 10 years.

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