Elbridge Gerry signed America's Declaration of Independence and became its fifth vice-president, but he is today remembered only because of his decision to approve a new set of senatorial boundaries submitted to him while governor of Massachusetts. The tortuous boundaries were drawn to give his political party an advantage over its rivals. One of the districts looked like a salamander, according to the editor of an unfriendly newspaper, and he pronounced the scheme a "Gerrymander". The portmanteau word caught on, and it now refers pejoratively to any cartographic manipulation for objectionable ends.
"Bushmander" is another neologism, coined by Mark Monmonier, the author of Bushmanders and Bullwinkles , to refer to the racial gerrymandering insisted on by the first Bush administration to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act. One bushmander resulted in a New York district that looked like the cartoon character Bullwinkle the moose. Monmonier shows that gerrymandering for non-racial, purely partisan political reasons has always been with us, but the role of race in re-districting is the book's main concern and topic of interest.
In the bad old days, politicians would draw district lines so as to ensure that no jurisdiction had a black majority and, thus, no black candidates were elected. The federal government has for years interpreted the Voting Rights Act as requiring not that district lines be drawn with a blind eye to race, but to ensure a large number of districts that are likely to elect black candidates.
The ensuing racial politics has made strange bedfellows, as Monmonier explains. Leftwing Democrats, civil-rights groups and black and Latino politicians have supported the maximisation of minority-majority districts. More surprising is the fact that Republicans love the policy, too. Ensuring that a black candidate is elected requires cramming a supermajority (65 per cent is the rule of thumb) of African-Americans into a district. But this "bleaches" the surrounding jurisdictions and - particularly in the South, where much of the gerrymandering occurs and where the white voters tend to be conservative - improves the chances of Republican candidates in all but the relatively few black districts.
The weird shapes of computer-drawn districts have been the source of much ridicule and even more litigation. One North Carolina district was likened to "a bug splattered on a windshield". One candidate joked: "If you drove down the interstate with both doors open, you'd kill most of the people in the district." A defender of the district and top-ranking civil-rights official was named John Dunne; a parodic poem, apparently addressed to white litigants challenging the district, intoned: "Ask not for whom the line is drawn; it is drawn to avoid thee."
Monmonier is a professor of geography at Syracuse University and an expert on mapping and cartography. He is an able and lucid guide to the sometimes convoluted history, mathematics and technology involved. The book is nicely illustrated and timely, as the politicians redraw the districts of the United States this year. Although there are a couple of unnecessary chapters in the book, its text is still a concise 156 pages.
But the book is as unsatisfying normatively as it is skilful descriptively. Monmonier simply cannot grasp the objections to racial gerrymandering, which are much more fundamental than the fact that the districts have funny shapes. He thinks that if he can show that there is nothing sinister about sinuosity per se - and he does - the discussion is over. But the issue is whether the government should encourage citizens to play identity politics, which it does when it creates districts for race-driven reasons.
Monmonier also has a very un-Burkean willingness to scrap an electoral system that has worked rather well for a new one he thinks he might like better. He urges Americans to get rid of single-member districts in favour of multi-member ones with proportional representation and weighted voting. "As for critics' fears of divisively fragmented legislatures, it's hardly likely that proportional representation will inundate Congress with platoons of Al Sharptons and David Dukes." Why not? - and, besides, "hardly likely" is hardly reassuring.
No one is likely to heed Monmonier's radical suggestions, but it is quite probable that both major political parties will continue to support the creation of black districts and white districts. This is not in the long-term interests of either party, since it ensures that Republicans will never learn to woo minority voters and guarantees Democrats an intractable leftwing base. And, of course, it discourages the interracial coalition building that would benefit the US as a whole.
Roger Clegg is general counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity, Sterling, VA, United States. From 1987 to 1991, he was a deputy in the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Bushamanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections
Author - Mark Monmonier
ISBN - 0 226 53424 3
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £16.00
Pages - 208