Guess which racist amphibian gave Trump the White House
In the early 19th century, during his second term as Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry approved a new set of senate districts. But something was fishy. The shape of one of the districts, Essex County, closely resembled a humble salamander. The Republicans had purposefully redrawn the district boundaries in such a way as to minimise the number of seats they would lose, while maximising the number of seats they would win. This devious bit of politicking led to the formation of some oddly shaped districts and a fun, new political portmanteau: the Gerry-mander.
The concept of ‘gerrymandering’ has since been broadened to include any political tactic deployed to enhance the odds of a particular party winning seats. In Texas, for example, voter ID laws specify that gun licences are sufficient proof of ID while student cards are not. Who’s more likely to own a gun: a Republican or Democrat? Seemingly insignificant discrepancies in laws can subtly stack the cards in one party’s favour.
Australia has been relatively immune to gerrymandering due to our non-partisan, independent electoral boundary-drawing organisation, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). But there are other, less reptilian ways to rig an election.
Take Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s notorious 19-year reign as Premier of Queensland. In the 1986 state election, Bjelke-Petersen’s Country Party (later rebranded the National Party) snagged 49 of the legislature’s 89 seats after securing 39% of first preference voting. The Labor Opposition, while receiving 41% of the votes, won just 30 seats. The reason? Electoral boundaries were redrawn to mean that country votes were worth nearly twice as much as metropolitan votes. AEC rules meant Bjelke-Petersen couldn’t change the shape of electorates into delightful reptiles like old Gerry did, but he could pass legislation to make the AEC change their size. Nearly two decades of capitalising on this loophole, known as malapportionment, gave the infamous Premier his own name-sake rort: the slightly less poetic Bjelke-mander.
Bjelke-Petersen is small fry compared to the US gurus of malapportionment. A landmark 1964 Supreme Court case, Reynolds v. Sims, found staggering levels of representative inequality. In the California State Senate, for instance, some backwater county of 14,000 was represented by a single member — and so was the entire six million strong city of Los Angeles. But the New Hampshire General Court takes top prize. One township, which totalled three people, had the same representational power of another district which contained 3,233 people. Each of those three voters was 1,081 times more politically powerful than those in the other district. The US Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, for the sake of equality, state legislature districts should be roughly equal in population.
There are valid reasons that a more sparsely populated area should be given the same representative power as a densely populated area. Remote and regional areas, for instance, generally require more infrastructure per capita. Distance and sparsity increase costs, and people living in remote areas shouldn’t necessarily be punished because they don’t have the collective pulling power of cityfolk. The Australian senate is completely malapportioned. Despite having less than a tenth of the population of NSW, Tasmania is represented by the same number of senators: 12. This malapportionment was the result of each state requiring equal representation in the senate as a condition for their joining the federation.
But it gets even more complicated. It’s not just the population of a district or electorate that matters when it comes to representational equality, it’s also important to consider the number of eligible voters in that area. In 2016, the US Supreme Court decided on a challenge, Evenwel v. Abbott, to Texas Legislature’s plan for new state senate districts. Although each of the proposed Texan voting districts fall within an acceptable variance in gross population of about 10%, the number of eligible voters varies wildly — up to 50% in some instances. Equally populated districts may still have representational inequality. This is often race-related. Black Americans are much more likely to hold criminal convictions which exclude them from voting; Latino communities are often excluded for visa reasons.
Like in the fated 1986 Queensland state election, the Texas challenge is ultimately about some votes being worth twice as much as others. The vital question here is, as the Atlantic’s Garrett Epps puts it, “does ‘equality of representation’ mean equal numbers of people — or equal numbers of voters?” Epps argues that, for better or worse, history seems to favour the former.
Although Australia’s battles with gerrymandering pale in comparison to the US, the opportunity for an advantage in politics is always tempting. In 2015, the NSW Shooters Party (with no discouragement from the incumbent Liberal state government) presented a bill that would have granted Sydney businesses two votes in local elections and force them to vote. The beneficiaries of such a change are obvious: as the federal government’s latest budget reaffirms, Liberals are all about Supporting Business.
Another controversial change passed in 2014, allowing elections for the City of Sydney to be conducted entirely by postal vote. Not having to line up at polling booths while getting physically harassed by flyer-brandishing party groupies sounds great, but it might benefit one group of voters more than others. Some Labor members argued it could make voting more difficult for people in shared or temporary housing, for instance, who are statistically more likely to vote Greens or Labor or any other non-Liberal party. As a recovering semi-nomadic undergrad, I can understand this: if an election were held entirely by postal vote, I’d have no idea to which of my last five sharehouses my voting forms might be delivered.
Maybe it’s a stretch, but the point should be taken seriously. We need to treat suspiciously any changes to electorates or voting laws and ask: Who do they benefit? I’d argue there are enough salamanders in politics already.