How Gerrymandering Shaped Major Late 19th Century National Policies

I have been reading Erik J. Engstrom’s book, Partisan Gerrymandering and the Construction of American Democracy, which is a tour de force on the history of partisan gerrymandering. I decided to put this post together to convey a sense of the fascinating stories he uncovers.

In the 19th century, after Congress began requiring single-member districts in 1842, mid-decade redistricting was common.  Ohio, for example, redistricted seven times between 1878 and 1892 – indeed, it conducted six consecutive congressional elections with six different plans during one point in this stretch.  Mid-decade redistricting was most common when the party out of power at the time the prior maps had been drawn gained control of the state’s political process in a subsequent election.  Yet in other states, districts went unchanged for decades, if the party in power continued to benefit.

In addition, when control of Congress was at stake, national party leaders pressed same-party state governments to gerrymander congressional districts aggressively.  The effects on national policy were dramatic.  In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Republicans had a near lock on control of the Senate and the Presidency, due in part to Republicans strategically admitted several new Western states that would clearly be controlled by Republicans.  Thus the House was the only place from which Democrats could fight off the Republican agenda – and the most intense period of partisan competition over control of the House before recent years was from 1872-1894.  Throughout this period, the parties were virtually tied in House elections; the swing of a few seats thus had dramatic effects on national policy.

When Republicans appeared on the verge of recapturing the House in 1878, after the disputed 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election, the Speaker of the House, Democrat Samuel Randall, did so explicitly enough that the New York Times reported:

Dispatches have poured in upon them [Democratic state legislators] from all parts of the country, and especially from the Democratic leaders at Washington, who have declared that the passage of this bill [on redistricting] was the only way to save the next Congress from falling into Republican hands.

In response, redistricting controlled by Democrats in Ohio and Missouri enabled Democrats to capture nine swing seats, which preserved their slim majority control of the House.  A further direct effect on voting rights followed: House Democrats eliminated federal supervision of polling places in the South, by eliminating funding for the army and federal marshals to monitor voting. 

Gerrymandering also enabled the Republicans to gain control of the House in 1888, also with major policy consequences:  on a straight-party line vote regarding the most controversial economic policy of the late 19th century, Congress passed the protectionist “McKinley Tariff.”

In contrast to modern gerrymandering, which typically involves creating a lot of safe seats, in the 19th century gerrymandering involved creating many competitive districts that were marginally tilted toward the party in power.  In this era, the political parties had far greater control over their candidates, and the parties used this power to maximize advantages to the party, without putting their incumbents in safe seats. 

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