SOUTH BEND – Due to delay in completion of the Census, gerrymandering for congressional and state legislative districts will be rather late this year. The Indiana General Assembly moved its final adjournment deadline to Nov. 5 to have time to receive official data and play the gerrymander game.
 
Better late than never?
     
Good government groups in Indiana and other states would prefer never. They of course want redistricting, the once-a-decade drawing of new districts to reflect population shifts. But they never want to see another gerrymander. 
     
In gerrymandering, the party controlling the state legislature draws districts for Congress and the legislature that are designed to elect as many members of that party as possible. Districts sometimes have strange shapes as the prevailing party links together areas that vote for the opposition, surrendering those districts, but making more districts “sure bets” for their side.
     
Gerrymandering usually works. In Indiana, where Republicans drew the districts after the 2010 Census, the GOP has built up super majorities in the state legislative chambers. Statewide totals for legislative races show that Democrats still would lose control of the chambers in a fair, nonpartisan redistricting. But Republicans wouldn’t always have super majorities, where Democrats have little voice and couldn’t even break a quorum if they all left the floor.
     
Even in 2012, when Democrats did better than usual statewide in the Republican-tending state – winning a U.S. Senate seat and coming close for governor – Democratic candidates won in only two of the nine congressional districts. 
     
Not fair? Right. Also, not unusual. Not as blatant as found in some other states. And not something new.
     
Gerrymandering is named after one of the founding fathers, Elbridge Gerry, signer of the Declaration of Independence and vice president under James Madison. While governor of Massachusetts, he supported a redistricting plan in which one district slithered around the map in the shape of a salamander. The term “gerrymander” was born.
   
Even Abraham Lincoln was a victim. In “Team of Rivals,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Lincoln’s fellow Republican candidates for the legislative seats then controlling appointment of a U.S. senator got the most popular votes. They didn’t, however, win the most districts. A Lincoln supporter complained then that “by the gerrymandering of the state, seven hundred Democratic votes were equal to one thousand Republican votes.” Lincoln didn’t get to the Senate. He did better later.
     
One reason it’s so difficult to get rid of gerrymandering is that a party controlling redistricting can use the “what-about?” argument, pointing to a past gerrymander by the other party as even worse.
     
Indiana Republicans cite when Democrats did the redistricting and drew a South Bend district extending way south to take in part of Kokomo.
     
It’s hard to get a party with the power to redistrict to forget the past and let a nonpartisan commission draw the districts.
     
Another use of the “what-about?” argument is point to other states. Neither party wants to lose its gerrymandering clout if the opposition in a neighboring state is drawing salamanders. Something should be done, however, and not just for fairness for candidates.
     
Gerrymandering is a key factor in how contentious Congress has become, with stalemate in, bipartisan compromise out.
     
With so many congressional districts drawn to be safe Republican and safe Democratic, there are fewer and fewer competitive fall races. The real contests are in the primary elections, where candidates win by appealing to the partisan primary voters with extremely strong rhetoric and stands. They go to Congress, unwilling to move back from those rigid partisan stands or to soften language.
     
Good government groups aren’t going to stop Republican gerrymandering in Indiana or Democratic gerrymandering in neighboring Illinois. They do bring pressure to keep some salamanders away. They also arouse  public support for a remedy in more states in the future. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.