Friday, November 23, 2012

Of Rotten Boroughs and the Gerry-Mander

After much ballyhoo our Elections are over and I have a new Congressman.  My previous Congressman is a pretty good guy, so I am pleased to report that he was re-elected handily.  Confused?  Well, for the benefit in particular of my readers from other lands let me explain the concept of the Gerry-Mander.

In the United States we have a census every ten years.  The information is handed over to state governments who use it to draw the boundaries of legislative districts both state and Federal.  They are supposed to contain roughly equal numbers of citizens in each.

Ah, but what kind of citizens?  When one party or the other has sufficient political power you tend to get some very peculiar looking maps, with districts morphing into crazy shapes that can in places be only a few miles wide, and often sprawl over large areas. The point being that crafty political operatives try to jam as many of their opponents supporters into a few districts that will be won overwhelmingly, leaving a much larger number of districts where "their guy" will prevail by a few percentage points.

The pioneer in this process, or at least the fellow who gave it its name, was a certain Elbridge Gerry,who as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 cooked up a map so full of twists and turns that a wag thought it resembled a salamander.  In a famous cartoon of the era it was mocked as "The Gerry-Mander".

So I actually got a new Congress person by having my bit of Wisconsin being sliced off of one District and grafted onto another for some small perceived political advantage.

This process has more critics than defenders.  It is surely heavy handed, and by creating "safe" Districts for political parties it does much to encourage the selection and retention of hacks and dunderheads who would be given the boot by voters less in the thrall of party loyalty.  On the other hand, it has encouraged the election of more minority group members, and does have a certain patina of legitimacy simply by its long tradition....

Like many aspects of American politics the Gerrymander, to use its modern spelling, has its roots in England.  It is in effect a correction of a flaw in their political scheme.  If we perhaps revise our political landscape too often, Great Britain in former times used to revise it not often enough.  As in never.

Consider the delightfully named "Rotten Boroughs".  These were ancient communities, dating from the Middle Ages or even earlier.  Having been something back in the formative years of Parliament, they were granted the right to send representatives.  And they kept said right in perpetuity....even if the once thriving community was now a mouldering ghost town!

The classic example is Old Sarum.

Welcome to Old Sarum in the modern era.  Not much to look at, just a rather mammary shaped hill situated in an area of mediocre farm land.  But back in the day....

Old Sarum was an Iron Age community, where the defensive aspects of the hill were quite advantageous, and were amplified by earthworks still visible three millenia later.  The Romans marched in circa 50 AD and built a small town called Sorviodunum, a name that has endured through much linguistic and typographical abuse.

It was a defensible place to be during unsettled times, so when the Empire collapsed the site was fought over for centuries with Britons, Saxons, Vikings and finally Normans variously occupying it.

It was the Normans that did the most with the place, building a central castle and a cathedral, the ruins of both being clearly visible to this day.

Relations between the soldiers and the clerics were uneasy, so circa 1220 it was decided by the Bishop that he and his cathedral would relocate.  Supposedly he wanted to make a point by moving to a new site one bowshot length away.  But the arrow hit a deer that ran several miles before expiring at the site of modern day Salisbury!

Old Sarum, and presumably the deer as well, were gutted by this event.  The town went into a slow decline but somehow managed to get a royal grant of two places in the formative Parliament during the reign of the notorious Edward II (1307-1327).

So though the long centuries that followed Old Sarum, by now entirely abandoned, sent two members to successive Parliaments.  No local inhabitants other than livestock being available, the few votes from the place were cast by absentee land owners.  The quality of representation thus produced, being mostly hacks and dunderheads, was actually somewhat appropriate for the sheep.

By the late 18th century it had just gotten ridiculous.  Thomas Paine in his 1791 "Rights of Man" observed that:

The county of Yorkshire, which contains near a million souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland which contains not a hundredth part of that number. The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?

A Reform Act was passed in 1832 ending the practice of Rotten Boroughs, and places like Old Sarum (and the equally notorious Dunwich, a town that had mostly long since fallen into the ocean!) became tranquil backwaters again.

But Gerrymandering lives on.  I rather enjoyed  this piece on the practice in Michigan's 14th Congressional District.  This includes downtown Detroit, a community that economically if not literally fell off the map a long time ago!

No comments: