Spring 2009 Newsletter Articles

Gerrymandering's Long History in Virginia: Will This Decade Mark the End?
by Kenneth S. Stroupe Jr., Chief of Staff

As most readers are probably aware, the term “gerrymandering” originated in the earliest years of the nation when one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, Gov. Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts, proposed a controversial plan for redrawing the voting districts of his state. With members of his Democratic-Republican Party in the legislature, the governor and his allies during his 1810-11 term drew the boundaries in a way to minimize the voting strength of their opponents in the Federalist Party. Among the new districts was one that was shaped especially odd, resembling a salamander.

Playing off of the unusual shape of the district and the governor’s last name, a newspaper reporter at the time coined the phrase “gerrymander,” and it has remained in the lexicon of American politics. It is a shorthand description for the manipulative practice whereby politicians craft districts aimed at producing election results the politicians prefer over those that voters might otherwise deliver at the ballot box.

But Gerry was by no means the first to gerrymander. Well before this, in 1779, Patrick Henry had drawn Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in a clear attempt to favor his party over that of James Madison in the first congressional elections under the newly ratified federal Constitution. Henry’s attempt was unsuccessful, as Madison was elected to Congress and later President of the United States. Ironically, through a fine twist of history, Eldridge Gerry served as vice president under Madison.

Gerrymandering in the Commonwealth of Virginia

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Kenneth S. Stroupe, Jr, "Gerrymandering's Long History in Virginia: Will this Decade Mark the End?" The Virginia News Letter, an electronic publication of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Vol. 85, No. 1 (February 2009)



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