With all eyes on the US midterms only a few days hence, observers around the world are beginning to understand that Donald Trump was quite right to speak of “rigged” elections, although not exactly as he meant.
Notwithstanding the belief of many Americans, their country is not the world’s only democracy, nor its oldest, largest or even best example. It is, however, the most influential functioning democracy and until recently something of a beacon. And it has contributed disproportionately to our political lexicon.
Even from its beginnings, American democracy has never been unalloyed. Anti-democratic tendencies have waxed and waned since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton. The Electoral College, for example, was calculated to keep the ultimate selection of a president out of the hands of the great unwashed.
But perhaps the most cynical perversions of democracy have to do with the manipulation of the voting process. While the suppression of voting groups by qualification tests is pernicious enough, perhaps the most insidious abuse is gerrymandering.
To understand gerrymandering, consider a large square containing twelve dots which you have been tasked to divide into four voting districts. Now, of course, if you truly want to practice fair representation, you will divide the square such that there are three dots in each portion, but if you want your party to win the next election, and many more after that, you will identify the three most faithful dots and give each of them its own division, leaving the other nine to share the remainder. You will thus be virtually guaranteed a majority win every time. (It’s slightly more complex than that, but you get the idea.)
Shenanigans of this sort long predate American democracy, going back at least to the rotten boroughs of Britain, which were finally abolished by the Reform Act of 1832. The most famous of these, Sarum Hill in Wiltshire (1295-1832), even after it ultimately became uninhabited, still qualified to send two members to Parliament, including the Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder.
It was Massachusetts’ Governor Elbridge Gerry who gave his name to the American practice. In 1812 he signed a bill which re-drew the electoral map of the state to give near-perpetual electoral success to his Democratic-Republican party. Before long, some wag noticed that the map of one grotesquely distorted district rather resembled a salamander, and coined the term Gerry-mander, which expression has become part of our political lexicon.
Gerrymandering remains alive and well in the United States because, unlike in most other democracies, the power to draw electoral boundaries remains with elected officials. To nobody's surprise, politicians continue to draw district boundaries to their own advantage. They are human, after all.lick here to edit.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.