Every 10 years, people check off items on their list of decennial life tasks. Adults get a new tetanus shot, travelers renew their passports and politicians attempt to manipulate district voting lines to keep their party in power.
For hundreds of years, the census has been and continues to be a tool for the government and how population data is collected.
Using this data, the government is able to adjust representation in the House of Representatives.
If an area’s population increases, so should its number of representatives and vice versa. The census began with the founding of the United States, but so did the idea that those counted could be manipulated for political gain. This is called gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering was taking place before the term was popularized in mainstream media.
Elbridge Gerry was not the first to gerrymander, but it would be what makes him memorable. According to the Smithsonian, the term gerrymandering was popularized during an 1810 election when Gerry manipulated district boundaries to maintain power. The new district boundary looked like a salamander, so his opponents coined the term “gerrymandering” when publishing propaganda during the election.
Gerrymandering continues to be a common practice over 200 years later. According to information gathered by Loyola Law School, only nine states redistrict using nonpartisan (non-elected) commissions. This leaves 41 states that redistrict using elected officials in their process and thus are more likely to be redrawn to favor the party doing the redistricting.
Gerrymandering seen after the 2020 census collection was from both major political parties.
While the Republican Party had less room for gain due to previous gerrymandering, both major parties adjusted their maps in their favor and with some success.
It is clear gerrymandering is a bipartisan tool. But what about here in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin is a state that redistricts via elected officials but is subject to a gubernatorial veto. It is also a state that poses challenges to anyone trying to draw fair district lines. “The Art of the Gerrymander,” a podcast with Andrew Prokop from Vox, explains that “geography is a difficult constraint on drawing a lot of these maps. Often it works to Republican’s advantage in certain swing states because of the now very well-known fact that Democratic voters tend to concentrate in cities and Republican voters tend to be more dispersed.”
Wisconsin is a well-established swing state that currently has six Republican districts and two Democrat.
Prokop goes on to say that between geography, keeping communities together and attempting to keep district lines contiguous, “…it is a bit of a challenge to draw a truly fair map in Wisconsin on a partisan basis.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in March ruled that it would use the “least changes” redistricting plans submitted by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as Wisconsin’s political maps for the next decade.
But just weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that those maps were incorrectly adopted. Then, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reverted to the original Republican drawn maps.
Organizations like Fair Elections Project work to educate Wisconsinites on the tactics and dangers of gerrymandering. Their goal is to push the state of Wisconsin towards a nonpartisan redistricting commission to help remove the bipartisan political bias that comes with legislature run redistricting.
Gerry could have been famous for any one of his contributions to the early establishment of the United States government. He signed the Declaration of Independence, refused to sign the Constitution and was a vice president under James Madison.
However, his legacy of biased voter map drawing has outlasted any other accolade and lives on as a modern practice and term over 200 years later. Politicians work to maintain the practice of gerrymandering while organizations like Fair Elections Project work to make sure biased redistricting is not on anyone’s decennial check list come 2030.