Gerrymandering Wasn't Meant to Protect Incumbents

Swing seats were the norm in the 19th century, not the exception. So what changed?

The original Gerry-Mander.

Image: Elkanah Tisdale/Boston Centinel

The practice of drawing voting districts to benefit one party over another -- otherwise known as gerrymandering -- has become the unlikely focus of a bipartisan reform movement that counts prominent Republicans and Democrats in its ranks. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that challenges the voting districts drawn by Republicans in Wisconsin.

In the past, the courts have been reluctant to stop partisan gerrymandering, and the early signs suggest that the Supreme Court may not intervene. That reluctance is born of historical precedent: Partisan gerrymandering has been around since the earliest years of the republic. Why intervene now?

That argument, though, rests on a misunderstanding of the history of gerrymandering. The kind of redistricting practiced by both Republicans and Democrats in recent decades has had the effect of protecting incumbents. But this outcome marks a radical break with gerrymandering in the past.

Elbridge Gerry, a prominent member of the revolutionary generation, had a distinguished career as a patriot and politician. But he is largely remembered today for his decision as governor of Massachusetts to sign a law that redistricted the voting districts used to apportion seats for the state Senate. It worked: Gerry’s own party, the Democratic-Republicans, won 29 seats; the Federalists netted a mere 11.

One of the districts created by that law was so peculiarly shaped that Federalist critics likened it to some kind of monster. A famous cartoon dubbed it the “gerrymander” in honor of the governor, and the term -- as well as the practice of partisan redistricting -- soon became commonplace.

Gerrymandering quickly became a useful tool in consolidating party control on both the state and national levels. These battles became pitched from the 1850s onward, as the modern two-party system of Republicans and Democrats became the norm. 

In the second half of the 19th century, the nation’s electorate was evenly split between the two parties, much like today. As control over state legislatures and the House of Representatives seesawed back and forth, both parties resorted to gerrymandering to bolster their standing, redrawing electoral maps as often as every two years in some states (decennial redistricting is a 20th-century innovation).

But here’s the rub: For all the naked partisanship, political races in the 19th century were far more competitive than they are today. That’s because the political parties drew their districts very differently than they do today. 

As the political scientist Erik Engstrom has shown in a recent study, 19th-century Republicans and Democrats sought to maximize the size of their delegations to the House of Representatives. This meant that they would deliberately disperse their own voters in the hopes of winning the greatest number of elections to the House.

In practice, this meant that there were no “safe” districts; every district was competitive, but each was designed to lean toward one party or another. In other words, in any given state, every district would contain a critical mass of Democrats (or Republicans, depending on which party gerrymandered the district).

This strategy could yield impressive results, enabling one party or the other to wrest control of the House of Representatives from the other. In 1852, for example, Democrats who had redistricted their state won 10 out of 11 House seats with only 54 percent of the total vote.

But gerrymandering could also backfire spectacularly. Unlike today, incumbents had only a tenuous grip on their districts, and tiny shifts in the electorate could topple them. Swing seats were the norm, not the exception. Two years after their triumphant gerrymandering in 1852, Democrats lost 74 seats in the House election of 1854 -- nearly a third of the entire chamber. Likewise, in 1874, Republicans lost 94 seats, and in 1894, Democrats lost a staggering 114 seats.

Today, incumbents in the House typically win 95 percent of the time. In this earlier period, most members of the House only served one or two terms because districts changed hands so often. In 1843, for example, nearly three-quarters of the House of Representatives consisted of first-termers. Gerrymandering, oddly enough, produced a de facto system of term limits on career politicians.

So what changed? At the turn of the 20th century, the House began allocating committee chairs on the basis of seniority, conferring a new value on incumbency. This in turn seems to have diminished party leaders’ enthusiasm for the strategy of drawing as many districts as possible that leaned toward one party or another.

Instead, gerrymandering gradually evolved into something very different: a means of protecting incumbents in both parties, with a handful of safe seats given to the opposition, but the lion’s share reserved for incumbents of the dominant party.

This has gradually yielded an electoral system that, by the late 20th century, has marooned the vast majority of voters in districts that will only change hands when there’s a wave election.

The outcome of the Wisconsin case will turn on a number of legal issues. But one thing the Supreme Court should not use to justify inaction is historical precedent. Yes, gerrymandering is as American as apple pie. But its consequences today are precisely the opposite of what it did to elections for most of the nation’s history.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

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    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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