INDIANAPOLIS — Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, has soberly worked on the serious issue of political redistricting for 20 years without gaining much traction.
But she got some attention when she threw a birthday party on the steps of the Statehouse recently for a long-dead politician who lent his name to what she calls the “dark art” of drawing voting districts for partisan gain.
“Now we’re having fun,” Vaughn said as she passed out slices of cake adorned with an image of a centuries-old political cartoon.
The event commemorated the 271st birthday of Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father who risked a charge of treason and death by hanging when he signed the Declaration of Independence.
A patriot whose political career spanned the Revolutionary War, Gerry later served as James Madison’s vice president.
But he’s best remembered for a law enacted while he was Massachusetts governor that contorted legislative districts to lock his party (the Democratic-Republicans) into power.
The image on Vaughn’s cake was a replica of an 1812 cartoon in the Boston Gazette that likened one of the Gerry-approved districts to a salamander, dubbing the creation the “Gerry-mander.”
The term stuck. Here in Indiana, as elsewhere, it’s come to mean the self-dealing practice by legislators of bending the lines of electoral districts in their favor.
“Instead of remembering him as this great founding father, we remember him for his political trickery,” Vaughn said. “That’s sad.”
But it’s also useful.
Poking fun at Gerry brought out the media to hear Vaughn and fellow members of the Coalition for Independent
Redistricting speak with passion about their cause. They’re advocating for an independent commission of citizens to take over the redistricting process.
Other coalition members include Democratic activist Tom Sugar and Republican Paul Helmke, a former Fort Wayne mayor who told the crowd: “Politicians will do whatever it takes to make their next election easier.”
Beyond cake, the event had a true celebratory feel. Participants donned special T-shirts and waved signs carrying anti-gerrymandering messages such as: “Voters should choose their candidates, not the other way around.”
They had reason for glee. Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to allow states to use independent commissions to draw legislative and congressional maps.
If such a commission were created here, it would upend the longstanding practice — by both parties — of carving up the state in their favor after the U.S. Census every 10 years.
Getting there won’t be easy, however. Lawmakers first would have to cede one of the few perks they have left and pass redistricting reform before the next round of it occurs in 2021.
“We’ll have to shame them into it,” Sugar said.
Will that happen? Who knows. But it’s hard to imagine that the super-majority Republicans, who’ve long insisted they practice fair redistricting, are ready to give up control of the Statehouse.
Still, the 2014 election may have pushed the state in that direction with a record low turnout of voters, who had few competitive races from which to choose.
In this past session, lawmakers agreed to create a study committee. Once appointed, it will have 18 months to look at what it would take to set up an independent panel to handle redistricting.
That committee faces many questions, including whether it would take the years-long process of amending the state constitution to legally make the change.
Vaughn just wants to get things going.
The birthday tribute to Gerry was meant to goose things along.
“That’s our message to the (study) commission: Take your job seriously. Make sure you’re diligent. Make sure you’re looking to the future,” she said.
“Because we don’t want remember you like we remember Elbridge Gerry.”
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CHNI newspapers. Send comments to [email protected].