Gerrymandering and coffin alarms

League of Women Voters members Heather Macalla of Bay Village and Megan Alabaugh of Cleveland gather signatures for the petition to end gerrymandering. Photo by Eric Macalla

The 19th century brought us coffin alarms. A bell on the headstone was attached to a string which went down into the coffin so that if the buried person “awoke,”  she or he could ring the bell and be retrieved. Symptoms and side effects of some epidemics, coupled with Gothic fiction, led to fears of being buried alive, so this seemed like a reasonable solution. Healthcare has come a long way since then and coffin alarms have disappeared.

The 19th century also brought us gerrymandering. Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry developed it in 1812 when he approved a redistricting map which consolidated voters in such a way as to disproportionately benefit his party. One district in the Boston area was so oddly configured that it looked like a mythological salamander. Thus was born the practice called “Gerry-mandering” which continues to this day.

Every 10 years, following each national census, our congressional districts are redrawn based on population changes. Currently the party in charge at the time can draw the districts as they like, in whatever shapes will create the most favorable number of votes for them.

In 2012, this process created not a salamander, but the infamous “snake on the lake” as District 9 in Ohio has come to be known. The “snake” is a long, thin band drawn along Lake Erie covering five counties, including parts of western Cuyahoga. The wide variety of cities, media markets and constituent needs contained in this district make it difficult and expensive to represent. Communities like Rocky River were ripped apart, getting two different representatives. The “snake” became one of four different districts representing Cuyahoga County.

Gerrymandering stacks the deck and sorts people into congressional districts based on how they are expected to vote. That means our individual votes are less important because it is clear how the vote will turn out from the moment the districts are drawn. No wonder there are fewer people voting these days.  

All the political parties over the years have used this practice whenever they have had a chance. It is basic human nature to take a power that is given to you and not to give it up voluntarily. We can’t expect the politicians to solve this for us.

In 2015, Ohioans voted overwhelmingly, by over 70 percent, to end gerrymandering for our state legislators who represent us in Columbus. This year, Fair Districts Ohio and the League of Women Voters are collecting signatures to put a similar measure on the ballot to end gerrymandering at the federal level for our Ohio members of the U.S. Congress.

This initiative will transfer responsibility for redrawing congressional district lines to the bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission that was created in 2015 to redraw the lines for our state representatives. The initiative includes a provision to keep communities whole (unlike what happened to  Rocky River). It also prevents counties from being split more than once.

Let’s put gerrymandering into the trash bin of 19th century history along with coffin alarms. It’s time to go over the heads of the politicians and stop the erosion of representative democracy. We need to create fair rules for redrawing the districts so that they are compact and competitive and every vote counts.

The first step in ending federal gerrymandering is to sign the petition to get the issue on the ballot. If you would like to learn more or sign the petition, please come to an information session at Westlake Porter Public Library on Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 7:00 p.m. or go to

Cynthia White

Cynthia White is a 30 year resident of Bay Village and recently retired psychologist from Cleveland Clinic.  She is a member of the League of Women Voters

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Volume 9, Issue 15, Posted 9:30 AM, 08.01.2017