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Gerrymander: to divide (an area) into political units to give special advantages to one group. – Merriam Webster Dictionary

Back in 1812, no one would have thought that the lowly, ground-hugging salamander would become famous in United States political lore.

But that’s because the practice of artfully defining geographical political districts for one party’s advantage was not yet established.

Enter Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts. The term “gerrymander” comes from combining Gerry and the last half of the word “salamander” because some thought that the district Gerry had carved out in Massachusetts resembled the shape of the reptile.

Gerrymandering has come down through the ages and has been used by both political parties to their advantage, though the practice is generally illegal.

State Sen. Billie Sutton, a Democrat who has won elections in a heavily GOP district, said the numbers are so lopsided in some districts that “no sane Democrat” would run. Yet he and his counterpart, Rep. Julie Bartling, also a Democrat of District 21, have enjoyed repeated success.

Sutton was quoted in a news story about the tall task Democrats have in rebuilding their party in South Dakota, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 254,000 to 170,000 with 121,000 independents.

When the Legislature in 2011 passed the redistricting map, it was under pressure to not only make the districts roughly equivalent in number, it had to factor in race. As a result, District 26, which at one time was a Republican stronghold, became advantageous for Democratic candidates running for the at-large position because of the large American Indian population. A Republican would be hard pressed to overcome the heavy Democrat numbers advantage – 6,645 to 4,506.

Even so, most South Dakota Democratic lawmakers were not pleased with the 2011 map and voted against it.  And many supported the 2016 ballot initiative, defeated by a wide margin, that would have taken away the redistricting power from the Legislature and placed it in the hands of a new citizens commission.

While the 1965 Voting Rights Act was written to protect minorities from discrimination at the ballot box, some have said that the designing of districts to ensure minority influence goes too far.

In fact, gerrymandering can and is used to try to make certain that minority voters are not disenfranchised. It’s a difficult task because when lines are drawn to give, say, blacks or American Indians a better chance of electing one of their own, it may take away those votes needed in other districts.

Nevertheless, every 10 years, following the U.S. census, a new map emerges and, like its predecessors, it won’t satisfy everyone.

Feb. 8, 2017