How does gerrymandering harm you?

Elbridge Gerry has a lot to answer for.

As you probably once knew—but have now forgotten—Gerry was vice president of the United States under James Madison, a role for which nobody remembers him (as is the case for most vice presidents, unless they subsequently become president). What everyone remembers Elbridge Gerry for is that he is the eponym for the word gerrymandering, which dates back to 1810 when Gerry was still Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, prior to becoming Veep.

Yesterday I attended an excellent presentation on gerrymandering by Garrett Dash Nelson of the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, along with three of his colleagues:

Gerrymandering will also be the topic for four days or so of the course I will teaching this summer at the Crimson Summer Academy (CSA). The larger unit on Methods of Voting has been part of our curriculum since CSA’s inception in 2004, but the gerrymandering topic within that unit will be new this summer.

The presentation was remarkably informative, as you can see if you watch it yourself. I particularly liked the social justice aspects of the information, which managed to combine mathematics with civics in a manner that will fit perfectly into my CSA applied math course called Quantitative Reasoning, where the students are all low-income high-school sophomores who attend public schools in Boston and Cambridge.

Here’s a photo of the original gerrymander as depicted in 1812, stretching from Chelsea northward all the way to Methuen and then eastward to Salisbury:

Some gerrymanders today are even more outrageous than that one! We’ll be comparing some districts for the US House of Representatives, the state legislature (officially the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), and the Boston City Council.

If you know the towns pictured above, you can tell why they make an odd conglomeration to be put in a single district. But it’s always helpful to have some hard data, so you can tell why Andover and Lawrence are “neighbors in name only” when they are combined into a single district; one of the websites that the presenters showed us allowed us to compare median household income in any town with that of each of its neighbors. Take Boston, for example:

By the way, I still like the original pronunciation of gerrymander with a hard G, as Gerry said it. But it now has a soft G, so I guess I’ve lost that battle.

Thanks to the four presenters for letting us think about how gerrymandering can harm us. Thanks too to Jim McLaughlin, Bailey Fidler, and John Monz, who have graciously allowed me to use some of the materials that they have written.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Math, Teaching & Learning