Election 2010: Part One — Gerrymandering in NC

Isn’t that a fun word?  Gerrymandering.  I live in Durham now, but I’m originally from Massachusetts, and that’s where the term came from.  Here’s the quick story: back in the early 1800s, Elbridge Gerry was governor of Massachusetts (1810-12).  Here’s a portrait of Eldridge from Wikipedia:

In 1811, he re-drew state legislative districts to benefit his party, the Democratic-Republicans, so they would have a better chance of winning.  Ironically, the backlash against this move cost him the election.  Here’s a famous political cartoon making fun of one of the districts he created:

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Gerry-Mander_Edit.png

The word “gerrymander” refers to an oddly shaped district that seems to be drawn for political reasons.

The idea is that if you know where pockets of voters are, you can draw the district lines to dilute your opponents’ strength.  Here’s a nice image I found that shows the power of district lines:

There is a majorly gerrymandered district in North Carolina — the 12th Congressional District.  It basically hugs I-85 and picks up some of the land on either side of the highway.

It’s actually a pretty famous district — it was the subject of several Supreme Court cases that spelled out what can and can’t happen when state legislators are drawing the lines.

State legislators re-draw the lines every 10 years, after the census comes out and determines how many Representatives each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.  There are currently 435 members of the House, but there used to be fewer.  Back when the country started, the Constitution said, and I quote from Wikipedia(mainly because it’s fun to think that the Founding Fathers spelled “choose” wrong — they spelled it “chuse”):

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse [sic] three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.

That makes 3+8+1+5+6+4+8+1+6+10+5+5+3 = 65 Representatives.  Our good friend Elbridge Gerry was one of those first 65 Representatives.

One of my students (thanks Alexis!) asked if the House always had 435 members, and that question prompted me to find this neat chart:

So every ten years, when there’s a new census, the number of representatives in the House shifts from state to state, always totaling 435.  In 2000, for example, the dark blue and light blue states in the map below gained seats (two and one seats respectively), and dark and light green states lost seats (two and one).

Most states (the gray ones) were unaffected.  NC gained one to go up from 12 to 13.  CA currently has the most, with 53 representatives for its population of nearly 37 million people.  TX is next with 32.

Anyway, getting back to North Carolina — I knew that the purpose of the 12th district gerrymander was to create a “majority minority” district, a euphemism for a district with an African-American representative.  Why might NC need such a district?  Well, I went looking for a picture of all of NC’s Representatives, and I could not find one.  So I searched for each person online, and captured an image of each representative.  And for a state with roughly 25% of its population made up of African-Americans, it’s interesting that there’s only one non-white Representative — Mel Watt.  And guess which district he represents…


Oh, and I also learned that our new friend, Elbridge Gerry, in addition to serving as an inaugural Representative in the U.S. House and as Governor of Massachusetts, also signed the Declaration of Independence and served as Vice-President to James Madison from 1813-14 (he died in office of heart failure, at age 70).


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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