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Recently, I had a project involving studying the history of redistricting and gerrymandering. In my studies, I came across what appears to be a particularly common aphorism in redistricting academia.

It generally takes the approximate form of “gerrymandering means that it’s not the voters picking their representatives; it’s the representatives picking their voters!” I was curious as to when and where this phrase originated, due to its ubiquity in its particular niche.

However, I was unable to find any research dating the phrase, and a somewhat exhaustive Google search (done by moving the latest search point further into the past) turned up as the oldest source I could find a FairVote article from early 2001 that says that with at-large elections, “[p]oliticians are not permitted to choose the voters, and the evils of gerrymandering are conveniently avoided...”

However, this answer is not definitive by any means, and I would like a more definitive answer than “Google says so”. So, can anyone help me find the origin of this quote? Anything would be helpful.

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  • @Laurel - The term arises from an editorial cartoon. This is easily deciphered with a simple Google: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering
    – Hot Licks
    May 10 at 22:58
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    @HotLicks The question isn't about "gerrymandering" but rather "gerrymandering means that it’s not the voters picking their representatives; it’s the representatives picking their voters!" (or similar).
    – Laurel
    May 10 at 23:25
  • I’m voting to close this question because it was cross-posted on Politics (which is where I believe it fits. 'phrase origins' on ELU means origins of phrases; origins of extended quotes is off-topic.) May 11 at 11:12

1 Answer 1

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Expressions conveying (in an aphoristic way) the idea that gerrymandering means "politicians pick voters, not the other way around" are fairly recent. Book and newspaper database searches yield quite a few examples from the past 40 years. Although they do not agree on a set wording, they are very similar in tenor and effect, and they do seem to have the earmarks of an emerging proverbial phrase—short, catchy, and memorable. Here are some examples, from the period 1989–2005, in ascending order by date. The listing here is by no means exhaustive.

From an unidentified article in Outlook, volume 1, issue 3 (1989) [snippet view]:

It is actually the election process in reverse. In an election, the voters choose their politicians; but in redistricting, the politicians choose their voters. While citizens vote to influence the way in which they are governed, those elected redistrict to perpetuate their control and term of governing.

From Jamin Raskin, "Gerrymander Hypocrisy: Supreme Court's Double Standard," in The Nation, volume 260 (1995) [combined snippets]:

By fencing out unfriendly voters and potential rivals, incumbents make districts in their own image and turn elections into a formality. In our self-perpetuating incumbentocracy, voters don't really pick public officials on Election Day because public officials pick voters on redistricting day.

From Lani Guinier, Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback Into a New Vision of Social Justice (1998) [combined snippets]:

Most of all, in a winner-take-all system of geographic districts, voters don't choose their representative. Representatives choose their voters. This means that candidates are reelected not because they mobilized supporters to go to the polls but because they used the power of incumbency to draw the election district lines around those supporters.

From David Lawrence, America: The Politics of Diversity (1999) [combined snippets]:

A helpful way to think about reapportionment is this: With elections, voters get to choose their policymakers. With reapportionment, policymakers get to choose their voters.

From Elaine Marshall (North Carolina Secretary of State), North Carolina Manual, 1999–2000 (1999) [snippet view]:

The Republican Party of North Carolina believes that our citizens should elect government officials rather than let politicians pick their voters through crafty technicians with a redistricting computer. We support reasonable, compact, congressional districts and legitimate single-member legislative districts which do not split counties as is mandated in Article II, Section 3, Subsection 3 of the NC Constitution.

(Ironically, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has, in the past five years, ruled on multiple occasions that the maps of congressional districts that the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature drew up in 2010 and 2017 were unconstitutional gerrymanders designed to maximize Republicans' election chances.)

From an unidentified item in Texas Forum on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, volume 6 (2001) [quotation not visible in snippet window]:

As the saying goes, "In gerrymandered election districts, the voters don't choose their politicians—the politicians choose their voters."

From Claire Maude, "Bush's Values Appealed to Southern Voters, Expert Says," in the Stanford [California] Daily (November 5, 2004, pages 3–4):

Expressing frustration with a practice that takes power out of the people's hands, [professor Jamin] Raskin denounced the practice of partisan officials choosing district boundaries known as "gerrymandering."

"Voters no longer pick representatives, representatives pick voters," he said.

From Rachel Abbey, "Many State Issues Fail," in the [Kent, Ohio] Daily Kent Stater (November 9, 2005, pages 2 & 7):

Districts are redrawn every 10 years by government officials.

"The current system allows politicians to pick their voters, rather than letting voters pick their politicians," [Keary] McCarthy [press secretary for Reform Ohio Now] said.


Conclusion

Expressions to the effect that gerrymandering enables politicians to choose their voters, rather than allowing voters to choose their politicians, are very common in the print record over the past 30 years. It is hard to say who first formulated the idea, but Jamin Raskin was an early and persistent propagator of it.

Whether the saying qualifies today as a fully established proverbial expression is difficult to say, because it is still relatively new. But if gerrymandering persists (as seems likely), I would expect the aphorism to become a permanent part of the political landscape, as "If voting changed anything, it wouldn't be legal" already has.

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  • The Economist - Apr 25, 2002 - Congressional redistricting - How to rig an election: In a normal democracy, voters choose their representatives. In America, it is rapidly becoming the other way around.
    – Phil Sweet
    Aug 4, 2020 at 23:48
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    Brennan Center "Joined by the ACLU, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court making three main points: first, partisan gerrymandering by both major parties is rampant; second, the Constitution embodies a vision of representative democracy in which the voters choose their representatives, not the other way around; and, third, that a gerrymander that makes it irrelevant which party gets a majority of votes violates that constitutional vision."
    – Phil Sweet
    Aug 4, 2020 at 23:52
  • What is relevant to the OP's question here is not just that many people have used some version of this wording in that period, but that none of them saw the need to attribute it to some specific original source. This suggests that those who used the phrase did not regard it as something sufficiently creative for anybody to deserve to be treated as the author of it.
    – jsw29
    Aug 5, 2020 at 0:13

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