Buried less than two miles from the Capitol is the man many blame for the toxic partisanship infecting Congress today even though he died 202 years ago. Elbridge Gerry was a patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, drafter of the Constitution, House member, governor and vice president under James Madison. Yet he is best known today for the twist on his name that now defines the twisting of legislative boundaries to give one party or candidate an electoral advantage. This “gerrymandering” is seen by many as a root cause of Washington gridlock, a point President Obama underlined anew in his final State of the Union address. Mr. Gerry, as governor of Massachusetts in 1812, signed into law a state legislative map that included an irregularly shaped district obviously drawn to benefit his party. A cartoon in The Boston Gazette archly observed that the map resembled a salamander and added a head, wings and claws to bring it to life. “Better say a gerry-mander,” retorted the waggish opposition newspaper editor Benjamin Russell, who is often credited with coining the exact term. Thus, a lasting element of America’s political lexicon was born. (Mr. Gerry’s name was pronounced with a hard “G” that has been softened in the contemporary use of gerrymander.)
History says that Mr. Gerry told his son-in-law that he found the map “highly disagreeable.” Now, growing numbers of politicians, reform advocates and voters are finding the map-drawing process highly disagreeable as well, spurring new attempts to institute a less partisan process in some states in advance of the reapportionment that will follow the 2020 Census.
The underlying problem is that strict political control of the map-drawing process, aided by sophisticated computer programs that can micro-target political affiliation, has stuffed Congress and state legislatures with increasingly safe seats, making lawmakers difficult to dislodge no matter what they do. And these districts, coupled with party primaries often decided by the most ideologically committed, produce candidates who veer toward the extreme ends of the political spectrum. By some estimates, only 15 of the 435 House seats are considered truly competitive this year.