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*One Person, One Vote* – Summarized
Nick Seabrook's Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America
🔑 Key Concepts
The Origins of the #Gerrymander
Elbridge Gerry, a key founding father and attendee of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, was persuaded to engage in an early instance of Gerrymandering, but he was not the one to invent it. That distinction belongs to a man named George Burrington – a corrupt colonial governor in North Carolina – who flipped the typical script of democracy, and attempted to select the voters who would in turn select the legislature with which he shared power:
“He achieved this goal by artificially creating new districts for the lower house of the colonial legislature out of whole cloth, while also arbitrarily altering the boundaries of the existing ones, remaking the electoral map into one that would ensure the election of those who supported his agenda.” (Page 33 · Location 385)
This practice has its origins in the British concept of the Rotten Boroughs – constituencies with small enough electorates that they could be easily bought and controlled by the aristocratic class.
Pivotal moments in Gerrymandering History
If Illinois hadn’t been gerrymandered by the Democrats to elect Abraham Lincoln’s opponent Stephen Douglas to the Senate, he never would have run for President:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln declared in his speech accepting the Republican nomination, and it was clear that the issue of slavery would dominate the campaign. This time, his opponent was the Democratic incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, and the election is remembered primarily for their famous series of debates on the values of republicanism, popular sovereignty, and liberty. But when the votes were in, despite Republican candidates ’ winning a clear majority statewide, the gerrymander was sufficient to preserve Democratic control in Springfield. The legislature dutifully reelected Douglas to his Senate seat. Stung by the loss, Lincoln decided to skip the Senate entirely and instead run for president in 1860. The Democratic attempt to sideline this rising star in the Republican Party was thwarted.
Who watches the watchers?
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
Seabrook argues that it is judges who should police the selfish interest of politicians that undermines democracy through the “creative” drawing of district boundaries.
The only problem with this, as he acknowledges, is that the courts themselves have historically refused to police instances of all but the most egregious instances of gerrymandering. This is rooted in the doctrine of judicial restraint.
Seabrook focuses two chapters on the Supreme Court justices who did the most to shape the course of jurisprudence on question of what constitutes unconstitutional gerrymandering.
Justice Felix Frankfurter “became a committed believer in the principle of judicial restraint, that courts should defer whenever possible to the wisdom of Congress and state legislatures, whose status as the directly elected representatives of the people made them better suited to solving controversial social and political problems.”
Writing for a three-justice plurality, Frankfurter argued, Courts ought not to enter this political thicket. The remedy for unfairness in districting is to secure State legislatures that will apportion properly, or to invoke the ample powers of Congress. The Constitution has many commands that are not enforceable by courts, because they clearly fall outside the conditions and purposes that circumscribe judicial action.
Justice Byron White - aka “the Whizzer – a former NFL player and Rhodes scholar who set the league record for rushing yards in his first season:
Few Americans can boast on their résumés of serving as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, earning two Bronze Stars in active combat, or leading the National Football League in rushing yards as a rookie. But Byron White was not like most Americans. He achieved all three. Nicknamed Whizzer by a newspaper columnist during his time as an all-American halfback for the Colorado Buffaloes — a moniker that, much to his chagrin, followed him for the remainder of his life — White was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1917.
Like Frankfurter, White opposed judicial activism in favor of a more restrained approach that allowed states to solve their own problems through legislation, rather than judicial fiat:
“A recurring theme of his opinions,” Stith writes, “was that the judiciary undermines its own legitimacy when it insists upon social or political objectives not rooted in the Constitution and resisted by the democratic institutions of society.”
White dissented from the majority in Roe v. Wade, on the grounds that abortion should be left up to the states.
The decisive case involving Gerrymandering came with Davis v. Bandemer.
Davis v. Bandemer
This case sought to answer the question: “Did Indiana's 1981 state apportionment violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?”
Indiana Republicans had used new mapping technology to draw districts rigged to the party’s benefit. In Seabrook’s view, this violated the principle of one person, one vote, and disenfranchised the voters of the state.
White, however, deferred to an earlier precedent set in Baker v. Carr, in which Justice Brennan had set out criteria for the “justiciability” of these political questions. He determined that in this case, Indiana’s blatantly biased districting was not a decidable question for the court to referee.
Thomas Hofeller & REDMAP technology
What changed in the latter part of the 20th century from the early instances of Gerrymandering was the advent of new technology that allowed savvy political consultants to advise the parties in power on how to Gerrymander for maximum political benefit. So-called REDMAP software allowed for the visualization and optimization of district boundaries to neutralize the opposition’s voters.
One Republican consultant in particular was pivotal in securing decades-long majorities for Republicans in various state legislatures. Thomas Hofeller, a Californian, is credited as the Godfather of modern Gerrymandering. The extent of his involvement was not known until his files were revealed after his death.
California’s redistricting in the mid-twentieth century had been characterized by dueling gerrymanders put in place by Democrats and Republicans. Neither had been particularly successful. The GOP controlled the state government after the 1950 census and had used that control, in Hofeller’s words, to “wield the gerrymander’s knife to maintain or increase their seats in the face of a three to two Democratic registration [ advantage ].”
The existence of large prison populations in rural areas grants these districts an outsized influence. Seabrook questions the fairness of including non-voting felons in the census count in determining the apportionment of representation, although alternative methods come with their own problems.
“The handshake” refers to a tacit agreement between incumbent Democrats and Republicans to keep Gerrymandering in place, even if one side remains a permanent minority
This is the hard problem of reforming gerrymandering. Even though the people want to see reforms by an overwhelming majority, the political class keeps this corrupt practice in place.
🗨️ About the Author
The author of Drawing the Lines: Constraints on Gerrymandering in U.S. Politics and One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America, he lives in Jacksonville, Florida.