Geek Trivia

The Term “Gerrymandering” Originated In Which U.S. State?

Florida
California
Massachusetts
New York
Where Do Venomous Snakes Outnumber Non-venomous Snakes?

Answer: Massachusetts

It’s such an odd sounding term that we’ll forgive you if you assumed “gerrymandering” had some obscure roots in an archaic and long forgotten historic word. The reality is, however, that gerrymander is a relatively young word that was coined in the state of Massachusetts a little over two centuries ago: by the Boston Gazette in March 1812.

The word use then, as now, refers to the intentional process of setting electoral district boundaries in such a way that one political party or candidate is heavily favored in the redistribution of the voting population, with results that don’t reflect the actual composition of the general area. For those unfamiliar with the practice, a simple way to visualize how such boundary alterations can change outcomes is to envision 1,000 people standing on a football field, organized into groups lined up on each yard line based on how much they like or dislike football, such that all the people near the west end zone really love football and all the people near the east end zone really hate football.

If you divide the field vertically, along each yard line, then ask the people in each “district” to pick somebody to represent them in a vote, you’ll end up with each little sideline-to-sideline district of the field picking a representative that has roughly the same view of football as they do. But if you switch the “districts” to a horizontal design running not from sideline to sideline, but from end zone to end zone, suddenly it’s less clear who would best represent each district, and if you further complicated things by carving up the field in a jigsaw pattern, you could even end up with a pattern where the football haters and football lovers were significantly under- or over-represented in their chunk of the field. When you apply that same “how do we divide voting districts to give fair representation to the people who live there” problem to the real world, you can see how it quickly gets very complicated.

The term came into popular use during the election cycle of 1812, when the then-Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, signed a bill that altered the state senate districts heavily in favor of his party (the Democrat-Republican Party) against his opponents (the Federalist party). The resulting remap, which created a meandering district that wrapped around the western and northern sides of the state, was said to resemble the shape of a mythological salamander and the term “Gerry-mander”, a portmanteau¬†of the governor’s name and salamander, was coined to describe the process of manipulating electoral boundaries for the benefit of one party over another.

While the term has stuck around, as a matter of historical interest it should be noted that we’re all saying the word wrong. Despite the widespread pronunciation of the word with a soft g sound, as in “John”, the late Governor’s name was actually pronounced with a hard g and we should be saying it with a hard g like in “Gary” or “Guy”.