The Legacy of Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry was an early governor of Massachusetts who created some very oddly shaped districts in an effort to control the outcome of elections. One famous district was in the shape of a salamander, and a newspaper quickly labeled it a gerrymander—a word that has stuck ever since.  A lot has been written, argued, and taken to court over the design of electoral districts from Congress all the way to county councils, school board, and city governments. The Supreme Court is hearing a case right now, and state courts are tied up with the aftermath of the 2020 census even as we got to the midterms with questionably drawn district lines.  Once these districts are affirmed or redrawn—and a number of states are still contesting the lines used for the midterm elections—they will be with us until 2032.  That sounds disheartening.  But it’s not as bad as you might think.

A recent article in Politico identified two consequences of the redrawing after the 2020 Census that may have had an unexpected effect on the relatively strong Democratic performance.  Both of them relate to the COVID pandemic, which began just as the Census was wrapping up.  During COVID, a lot of workers got to work from home, and many of those who had that option moved farther away from work, often from the center city to the suburbs or even small towns and rural areas.  Those who had that option were disproportionally Democrats, and they were moving in many cases from Democratic-leaning districts to Republican-leaning districts.  Apparently, that made a difference in some closely contested races—and it was a year of many closely contested races.

The second effect of COVID was partisan differences in death rates.  More Republicans died from COVID than Democrats, at least partly because of calls from Republican party leaders to refuse both masks and vaccines.  I wondered at the time about the wisdom of pushing a response o the pandemic that would kill off your most loyal partisans. 

Attention is now focused on the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices are considering the independent legislature theory that would vest all the power to redistrict in state legislatures without court oversight at either the state or federal level. That is certainly an important decision.  Beyond SCOTUS and the midterm 2022 elections, however, there are reasons to hope that the 2020 Census-based districts, drawn up by partisan state legislatures, may not have as much lasting impact as one might think.  Age cohorts die off and new ones come of age. The difference in voting preferences between the average 75-year-old and the newly enfranchised 18 to 25-year-old is quite substantial. Also, people move.  A district that might have looked safely Republican in 2022 could be very different by 2026 or 2028 or 2030 as voters migrate to where the weather is better or the job opportunities and cost of living are more attractive. . There has been a steady migration from the Northeast and the Midwest and California to redder states, turning parts of them purple—my favorite political color. The Elbridge Gerrys of 2030 will have a harder task squeezing as many of their opponents into as few districts as possible.

Economists believe that monopoly power is ephemeral, attracting would-be competitors to find ways into that monopolized market, encouraging consumers to find substitutes for the products and services of monopolized industries. Technology moves on and pokes holes in the flying buttresses and drains moats surrounding a castled monopoly.  Remember when cable TV was an evil monopoly? And before that, the “Big Three”—NBC, ABC, and CBS? The political equivalent of monopoly is tyranny of the minority.  It’s true that the Constitution, somewhat deliberately, provided excessive protections for the minority, , the southern states where enslaved persons only counted for 3/5 in the Census and couldn’t vote, the smaller states with two senators per sat regardless of population. But ultimately, the majority will find a way to prevail, sometimes by intent but more often by the changes carved by the flow of a moving population river flowing in and out of districts, bringing in changes in gender, politics, religion and priorities to districts which were once safely stowed in a particular political basket.

I never understood why economics was labeled the dismal science.  I think it is largely populated by incurable optimists, with deep and abiding faith in the forces of change. Like the fabled King Canute, who was (apparently wrongly) accused of trying to hold back the ocean’s tide, we know change is inevitable.  Good change, bad change, neutral change. Yes, it’s worth trying to direct the tides in the affairs of men (and wmen), but it’s also good to learn to go with the flow!