When Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a bill that reorganised his state’s voting districts to suit his own political party, the Boston Gazette coined the term “gerrymander” because one of the new districts looked like a salamander. This happened way back in 1812, but gerrymandering is still a feature of democracies worldwide.
In the recent midterm elections held in the US, for example, the Republicans won the state House in Michigan 63 seats to 47, despite winning less than 50% of the popular vote. If the districts had been fairly assigned, the Democrats would now be controlling the state House 56-54. [For these and other figures, go here. Thanks to Dispatches from the culture wars for the heads-up.]
This isn’t to heap scorn on the American political system – Australia, too, has had its fair share of gerrymandering and malapportionment – but to heap praise on an Australian institution that gets almost no attention unless it does something wrong, an incredibly rare event.
The Australian Electoral Commission was created in 1902. One of its chief responsibilities is the redistribution of federal electoral boundaries so that every state and territory electorate has a similar number of potential voters. There is one rider to this redistribution: no state can have less than 5 electorates, and no territory can have less than 2 electorate, a result of promises made to the states at federation (a result that favours Tasmania with one extra seat – giving them a total of 5 electorates).
Since the beginning of this century, all Australian state governments also follow the principle of “one vote, one value” in assessing the boundaries of state electorates.
I worked in the AEC for a short time in the middle 80s, and know firsthand of the organisation’s dedication and professionalism. If only voters in democracies the world over had a similar impartial institution to manage elections and organise electoral redistributions.