1812, Massachusetts. The head of the state governor, Elbridge Gerry, does not stop thinking about one issue: how to get his party, the former Democrat-Republican, achieve electoral victory in the northern and western districts. He needs to find a solution, a mechanism that allows him to win despite the areas of the state that are most hostile to him. At 70, he has few bullets left to reach the White House and the elections of that same course will play a decisive role. After much discussion, Gerry finds the solution. He has realized that what he has to do is make the votes of all those districts in which he enjoys the least support have less value. But how? Sure, joining them all in one. Converting several districts into one. In this way, with the new drawing of the electoral districts, that unfavorable district will distribute fewer seats than with the previous distribution, while the rest of the territories will maintain their usual distribution of seats. Sure victory. After more than 200 years, that trick that happened to Elbridge Gerry has a capital importance in the electoral system of the United States, more if it is possible considering that every ten years it is the own congresses of each state that are held. in charge of redesigning their electoral map.
The political scientist and analyst Pablo Simón explains it like this: “In a majority system, that is, one in which a candidate achieves representation if he has only one vote more than his opponent, gerrymandering disperses the electoral support of the rival in different constituencies of so that they always end up in the minority. ” Therefore, if the party in power manipulates the electoral map through the technique devised by Elbridge Gerry, it will always obtain favorable results, since it ensures that it achieves a majority in the constituencies that are in contention. In other words, gerrymandering works in two directions. On the one hand, the change in the electoral pattern allows the party in power to ensure that the opposition is in the minority in most states. On the other hand, it allows you to group the entire opposition vote in just one state (or as few as possible), in order to ensure victory in the rest. A group of journalists realized all this in 1812, who baptized the trap with a mixture between the name of the politician -Gerry- and ‘salamander’ -‘alamandra ‘, in English- for the silhouette similar to that of that animal that ended up adopting the new constituency.
The piece of the US electoral mechanism that opens the door of the trap to the presidents – although, throughout history, it has happened in many countries – is the power that the politicians of the congresses of each state have when it comes to draw the electoral districts for the House of Representatives, as Pablo Simón points out. As it has to be periodically redesigned, it is very sweet for the party that holds the majority in Congress to approve limits that are advantageous for it and, therefore, unfavorable for the opposition. Now, it is important to note that gerrymandering has nothing to do with apportionment, the phenomenon that brought Donald Trump to power despite losing by more than three million total votes to Hillary Clinton. What happened then was that Clinton won in states like California, where a large number of populations live – and vote -, but Trump took the victory in a greater number of small states. “To change”, as Simón explains, “the current president came out winning in the sum of seats”, despite the fact that it was Clinton who swept the votes.
“In Spain it is difficult for us to talk about gerrymandering”, says the political scientist. “In the Spanish Constitution it is established that the electoral district is the province itself,” he continues, “therefore, the redesign of the electoral map is not allowed, which has remained stable practically since Javier de Burgos in the 19th century.” However, Simón specifies that in the autonomous arena there are some nuances: “There are constituencies that are lower than the provincial level.” The analyst gives the example of Murcia, where until recently there were up to five different constituencies that “were designed in their day to lessen the power of the Cantonal Party of Cartagena.” In any case, he resolves, “in Spain we have a proportional electoral model, in which it is more complicated for gerrymandering to take effect because a majority is never completely stoned. There are always possibilities that a party will get representation.” That is one of the reasons why the Congress of Deputies is more plural than the House of Representatives of the United States of America.
That idea of Governor Gerry – who ended up sneaking into the White House as vice president from 1813 to 1814, when he died of cardiovascular disease – has endured to this day with particular incidence in Anglo-Saxon countries. Although as the years have passed, parliaments around the world have included guarantees to prevent the appearance of gerrymandering, the trap cannot be ruled out in some scenarios, such as the United States, where in 2021, as happens every ten years, the electoral map will be redesigned. It will be then when the North American politicians with a majority in the different congresses will have to fight to stay honest and not be convinced by the ghost of Vice President Elbridge Gerry.