Commentary: Gerrymandering affects the big issues of our day

By Janet Williams

Gerrymandering matters.

It is not an arcane word describing some confusing political exercise. Nor is it describing something that affects only politicians and their acolytes.

Janet Williams, editor,

It matters because it has a direct impact on the biggest news stories on the day – tax cuts, sexual harassment, health care, defense and infrastructure spending, and so on. Name an issue and gerrymandering has a direct impact on it.

I was at an event earlier this week when one woman asked a group of us what will it take to get the public interested in the gerrymandering issue.

The first answer is stop talking about gerrymandering unless you have an audience of etymologists who want to know that the word comes from a combination of Elbridge Gerry and salamander. Gerry is the Massachusetts lawmaker who carved a legislative district in the early 1800s to help his political friends and hurt his foes by drawing a boundary that, when viewed on a map, resembled a salamander.

The issue is really about whether your vote makes a difference when you go to the polls. As others have said, it is about whether you choose your elected representative or that representative chooses you.

Voting isn’t an exercise for political junkies. The act of voting is the lifeblood of our democracy. This is the one action where we can tell the guys (yes, mostly guys) in Washington or Indianapolis that no, we don’t like that tax plan or we want our dollars spent on things that will make our neighborhoods better places to live.

Right now in Washington the House of Representatives has passed a tax plan that cuts corporate tax rates from 35 to 20 percent. The Senate is weighing its version.

If you live in Indianapolis and support the idea of big corporate tax cuts, go ahead, share you view with Rep. Andre Carson. He is a Democrat in a congressional district where there are so many Democrats that voices that run counter to the party line are drowned out. He or any Democrat on the ballot will likely easily win re-election.

And Democrats, as a group, oppose the tax cut/reform plan. Carson was one of 205 votes, all Democrat, that voted no. In fact, only 13 Democrats voted with 214 Republicans to pass the plan.

The same holds true in Republican Rep. Susan Brooks’ district in Hamilton County, which is overwhelmingly Republican. If you live in her district and oppose the tax plan, your opinion doesn’t matter.

Your minority voice in any of the lopsided Republican districts doesn’t really matter.

The Indiana General Assembly might be tackling the gerrymandering issue again in the legislative session that starts in January. Civic groups like Common Cause are pushing lawmakers to take up a bill that would have legislative district boundaries drawn by a nonpartisan commission.

In the last session, similar proposed legislation died when a committee chairman in an overwhelmingly Republican district killed it. Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, refused to allow a vote on the bill in the committee he chaired.

Maybe Smith would have reconsidered his decision if his district wasn’t so overwhelmingly Republican.

How our representatives represent us matters. If they had meaningful competition in November elections, elected officials on all sides would be forced to weigh the voices of those across the political landscape.

That is how the legislative process is supposed to work – opposing points of view and policies compete in the marketplace of ideas. And markets only function when neither side has a monopoly.

What will it take to get us to understand that gerrymandering matters?

For us to discover that working class Americans have been ransomed to pay for trillions in tax cuts for the very wealthy?

That Medicare and Social Security have been robbed to fund big tax breaks for corporations?

Or how about when we realize that our tax dollars are going toward bigger and better weapons instead of rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges?

We need a trustbuster, a Theodore Roosevelt of the 21st century who will lead the charge against gerrymandering and the monopolies it creates.

Only then will we again be in a position to choose the women and men who represent our interests.

Janet Williams is executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. She can be reached at

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