Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Salamander politics

Remember Elbridge Gerry?

Mmm, I thought not. Yet it is he who has the distinction of being the source of the word gerrymander. Almost 200 years ago, as governor of Massachusetts, he arranged for the electoral boundaries of one district to be drawn in a contorted shape that would help his party win election. The shape was so bizarre it was likened to a salamander and the word gerrymander is a combination of "Gerry" and "salamander".

Strangely, the ability of politicians to manipulate electoral boundaries, remains a feature of US politics to this day, and one example of this is shown in the diagram above.

The reason I'm blogging about this is that "gerrymander" has become a favourite term of many Labour MPs in recent days. The word itself sounds evil, and such words are a delight to politicians. But is it accurate to use this word to describe what the coalition government is doing?

I think not. Tories have felt for some while that the electoral system has a built in bias against them because typical Tory constituencies have more people in them than typical Labour ones. The reason is because people are leaving the towns and cities (often Labour strongholds) for the country (typically Tory, at least in England). This means that, with more residents per constituency in the country, a country vote counts for less than a city one. Re-drawing boundaries to make constituencies have roughly the same number of residents is not gerrymandering: it's a simply matter of fairness.

However, since Labour would be the main loser in such an exercise, they are naturally keen to portray re-drawing boundaries in a poor light. This is a pity, because there is a real problem with voting in Labour constituencies and it's this: too few people register to vote in the cities. Why did Labour allow this to continue during its thirteen years in power? And why don't they focus on fixing it now?

Voter registration was a powerful tool in enabling equal rights in the United States in the 20th Century. Instead of fraudulently shouting about gerrymandering, Labour would be wise to learn from the American example and empower their residents to vote.

That would be good for British democracy and a way to bury the political legacy of Elbridge Gerry.


Alister said...

Illinois's 4th congressional district is the most extreme example of gerrymandering ever seen.
"The two sections are on opposite sides of the city and are only connected by a piece of Interstate 294 to the west" Yes the only link is the road non of the properties bounding the are in the district.

Sean Haffey said...

What a lovely anecdote! Do you by any chance have a map of the district?