CRF Blog

Drawing the Line

by Bill Hayes

In Drawing the Line, the New Yorker reviews Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy by David Daley.

The Constitution had left it to state lawmakers to determine how elections should be held, and in Virginia the Anti-Federalists controlled the legislature. Knowing that his enemy Madison was planning a run for the House of Representatives, Henry set to work. First, he and his confederates resolved that Virginia’s congressmen would be elected from districts. (Several other states had chosen to elect their representatives on a statewide basis, a practice that persisted until Congress intervened, in 1842.) Next, they stipulated that each representative from Virginia would have to run from the district where he resided. Finally, they stuck in the shiv. They drew the Fifth District, around Madison’s home in the town of Orange, to include as many Anti-Federalists as possible.

An ally of Madison’s who attended the session in Richmond wrote to him that while it was unusual for the legislature to “bend its utmost efforts” against a single individual, this was, indeed, what had happened: “The object of the majority of today has been to prevent yr. Election in the house of Representatives.” Another friend reported, “The Counties annexed to yours are arranged so, as to render your Election, I fear, extremely doubtful.” George Washington, too, was pessimistic; Madison’s defeat seemed to him “not at all improbable.”

Henry’s maneuver represents the first instance of congressional gerrymandering, which is impressive considering that Congress did not yet exist. (One of his biographers has observed that Henry was fortunate that “the wits of Virginia” weren’t quick enough to invent the word “henrymandering.”) Since then, every party out of power has railed against the tactic. Meanwhile, every party in power has deployed it. The Federalists, when they got their turn, gerrymandered just as energetically as the Anti-Federalists. So did the Whigs, the Democrats, and, once the Whigs collapsed, the Republicans. In the eighteen-thirties, the Anti-Masonic Party briefly came to power in Pennsylvania. The Party used its hour upon the stage to push through a round of gerrymandering.

In contrast to our union, gerrymandering actually has grown more perfect with time. Henry had only his gut to go on, and his gut, it turned out, wasn’t that reliable. In spite of his machinations, the Fifth District elected Madison. Today, when party functionaries draw district lines, they have at their disposal detailed census results, precinct-level voter tallies, and a cloud’s worth of consumer choices. [more]