May 26 • 11:27 PM

Now is time to dismiss 'Gerry Mander'

April 28, 2010
Editor's note: The following guest column was submitted for Tim O'Brien, O'Brien is executive director of the Small Government Alliance, a statewide, independent, nonpartisan political action committee. More information is available at

The way we libertarians are always quoting the Founding Fathers it would be easy to mistake our admiration for veneration. Not so.

Now, we certainly are awed by their philosophical insights and political innovations. Especially the ingenious protections they designed into our unprecedented, checks-and-balances system of government. It showed incredible foresight to anticipate venality even for leaders whose power derived from "the consent of the governed."

Nor, it turned out, did we have to wait long after the founding of our republic for evidence of the danger to emerge from their own ranks.

Consider the career of one of the less renowned among them, Elbridge Gerry. A signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, as well as a delegate to the convention that drafted our Constitution (which document he actually refused to sign because it did not include a Bill of rights), Gerry's contributions to our nascent government ended in 1814 when he died in office as vice president under James Madison.

But today his is primarily remembered for a power-grabbing scheme he concocted while governor of Massachusetts.

Following the 1810 census Gerry got his state's legislative districts redrawn so as to favor candidates of his democratic-Republican party by concentrating—and isolating—the opposition Federalists in a single, serpentine district. The bizarrely shaped district was lampooned by the editor of a Boston newspaper who compared it with a salamander, dubbing the governor's creation a "Gerrymander."

Both the addition to the political lexicon and the tactic to entrench partisan advantage it named survive to this day.

Two centuries later, out here in what Gerry would have called the Northwest Territories, multiple applications of the gambit that bears his name have divided up our own state's legislative districts between the two major parties, leaving nearly all of them noncompetitive.

The overwhelming majority of seats in the Michigan legislature are "safe" for either the Democratic or the Republican candidate. Consequently, all of these races are in effect contested in primary, rather than general, elections. And since participation in these (ostensibly preliminary) races is dominated by the most rabid fringe of the respective parties, nominations are usually won by their most polarizing, demagogic candidates.

In the general election—the one that's supposed to give voters a choice of who shall hold each office for the next term—the major party not favored by the particular district boundaries nominates a nominal candidate simply to fill the ballot line. Offering only token opposition, not a viable choice.

Is it any wonder we have gridlock in Lansing? It would be a wonder if we didn't.

Two centuries after the birth of Elbridge Gerry's lizard Rep. John Walsh (R-Livonia) has introduced legislation that would slay its progeny here in Michigan once and for all. HB 5908 proposes to transfer authority to redraw legislative districts from a committee appointed by the legislature itself to the independent, nonpartisan, Legislative Services Bureau. Further, it would mandate district lines based exclusively on population density, local jurisdiction and natural geography. Any consideration of partisan history or incumbency would be explicitly prohibited.

Admittedly, this change will not give rise to genuinely competitive elections overnight. People do, after all, tend to spontaneously align themselves into homogenous groups, including by political inclination. But it would, at least, put an end to deliberate manipulations by partisans to consolidate power by intentionally segregating the electorate based on voting patterns.

With the census now underway this is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to stop the hijacking of the mechanics of representative government by whichever party happens to be in power following the tabulation.

If you have ever uttered the words "the lesser of two evils," stop complaining and do something about it. Put the "self" back in "self-government." Contact your legislators and demand passage of HB 5908.

"The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," Elbridge Gerry once observed. "The people do not want for virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots."

(Sorry. I just can't seem to resist the compulsion to quote the Founding fathers. Even the ones who ended up proving their own point.)

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