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Read about how I connect a popular TV show to drawing up electoral district boundaries.
Seinfeld was the hit television comedy of the 1990s. It featured dark humor, a break from the feel-good shows a decade earlier. It was described as a show about “nothing,” which is an amazing task to pull off every week.
It ran for nine seasons, ending in 1998, during the week I graduated from college. Seinfeld taught us many things about our daily lives, and if you are of a certain age, you have probably consumed every episode more than once. You have certainly discussed a situation from any given episode when a relevant problem arises.
One of the reoccurring characters was a guy named Newman. Newman was a mail carrier who lived down the hall from Jerry and was friends with Kramer, who was always scheming new plans to enrich themselves.
This brings up a surprise edition of Ask Me Anything, where Seinfeld and electoral district boundaries collide.
We have Okay History supporter, Bayjh, to thank. I don’t know Bayjh, but she is a dedicated reader who takes the time to like many of my lessons, something I hope a few of you I do know begin to take up.
Last week I dove into the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, where we looked at the history of poll taxes, and Bayjh dropped this question into the comments section.
This is a great question, Bayjh. My apologies for not answering it earlier, but it was too good to pass up in making it a longer essay. I’ll get to the answer in a bit, so I ask for some patience to connect the dots here.
I’m sorry to interrupt. This is a chance to suggest that if you are not a subscriber, go ahead and subscribe to Okay History, a reader-supported newsletter. Thanks!
In season seven, episode twenty, titled The Bottle Deposit, we see our villain Newman appear at Jerry’s. Exchanging their famous sarcastic pleasantries, which those of a certain age have used several times, Newman finishes a bottle of the disgusting Mellow Yellow and throws it into the trash can.
Kramer fishes it out and explains that the bottle can be turned in, and Newman can collect five cents. Astounded by this discovery, Newman investigates to learn that in Michigan, you can receive ten cents for every bottle. Excited about the seemingly new “get-rich” plot he uncovered, he engages Kramer to join him in a scheme to collect bottles and cans and take them to Michigan.
Kramer, of course, has already tried this. He explains that it can’t be done due to numerous economic factors that don’t allow the right profitability. But Newman is determined to overcome this obstacle.
After pounding about a dozen cases of Mellow Yellow, while working his 18th-century calculator, Newman has an epiphany – Mother’s Day is coming up soon, which means many people will be sending their mothers gifts – which means an extra mail truck will be needed to carry the mail back and forth from New York to Michigan. I have no idea why this is the case, but whatever; it’s a television show about nothing.
The problem is solved – a free truck! Which lowers the overhead, which means greater profit. The scheme can proceed!
I’ll skip the rest of the episode details and subplots to get to the point - the amount of time and energy to put into figuring out how to collect as many bottles and cans in New York and get them to Michigan to cash in while keeping your costs low is pretty much how the concept of gerrymandering works.
The term gerrymandering comes from a political cartoon in 1812 mocking the Democratic-Republican-controlled Massachusetts legislature, which redrew the electoral district boundary for the state senate, making it easier for their candidate to win.
As you can see from the picture, it looks like a scary salamander.
The Gerry part comes from Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed the bill allowing such foolishness. The hilarious part of this entire thing is that Gerry was supposedly against the idea. If true, then it’s a lesson that if you dislike something so stupid, it’s best to stand your ground, or they will forever attach your name to it.
The goal of gerrymandering is to maximize your support while at the same time minimizing the support of your political opponents. If you pound enough Mellow Yellows, you could devise a plan to ensure your party maximizes the number of people elected to office – just run the numbers.
Within our political system of two gangs, you can conclude that both parties at the state level make gerrymandering a regular occurrence, as Bayjh does when she reads and likes OKH. It happens all the time and feels good about it.
Which, Bayjh, I’m sure you are wondering if I have forgotten this:
Okay. The simple answer is technically no. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment looks at ways to prevent you from voting. Gerrymandering allows you to vote - it just wastes your vote simply because people in power have determined it to be that way.
You could waste your vote on someone like my Cousin Andrew. Trust me when I say this, voting for Cousin Andrew has the same effect as burning your ballot.
But you can vote for Cousin Andrew if Cousin Andrew is on the ballot. Paying a tax for the right to vote for Cousin Andrew1 and his terrible views on life, despite his very generous spirit2, is unconstitutional.
The United States is the leader in gerrymandering. It’s a part of our DNA. Both Dakotas resulted from gerrymandering, creating two states that helped the Republican Party gain more power. Maryland gerrymandered the only Republican representative from the western part of the state simply because Democrats wanted more bodies in the House.
The Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Still, in 2019, it ruled in Rucho vs. Common Cause that while gerrymandering was icky, it wasn’t something the court itself could rule on unless it were racially motivated. I have no idea what that means, but the effect is that the districts in North Carolina and Maryland remain the same, tipped to the party that controls the state legislation.
Democrats and Republicans are the Newman and Kramer’s of the political world, crunching numbers, drinking Mellow Yellow, taking cans and bottles, and loading them into a federal truck to drive across state lines under false pretenses. It’s all technically legal, but you watch it happen, and you can do nothing to stop it. You are amazed by the amount of time spent scheming, except gerrymandering isn’t as funny.
There are some arguments that gerrymandering is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, but I haven’t ranked that one yet.
Maybe we could get a gerrymandering constitutional movement going?
You probably could have finished a Seinfeld episode before you got your answer, Bayjh, but I hope it was helpful. If you want to be as helpful as Bayjh, please hit that like button. If you have any interesting topics you want me to cover, email me at Chris@okayhistory.com or drop them into the comments section. I see them, and if I don’t answer them immediately, it’s either because I’m going to use it later or I’m playing golf. I’m certainly not collecting cans and bottles to drive them to Michigan or plotting to redraw districts. I scheme in other ways.
I’ll be back on Monday, reviewing important historical events of the week. I’ve got plenty to do to keep me busy over the weekend. Until then, I hope yours is a good one as well.
Cousin Andrew is okay.
Blue loves Cousin Andrew.