John Larrysson's Column: Rotten Boroughs and Gerrymandering

Old Sarum is a hill in Wiltshire, in south-west England. No one has lived on the hill since the 14th century, but it elected two members to the English Parliament for centuries. It is a classic example of a rotten borough. If you were the landowner, you had considerable political power. A member of parliament was in your pocket (meaning under your control), so rotten boroughs were sometimes called pocket boroughs. Compare Old Sarum to the city of Manchester, with more than 100,000 people by the 19th century. It did not have any member of parliament of its own. (It was represented by Lancashire.) 

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England reformed their elections and rotten boroughs were abolished by the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867. However England still did not have universal suffrage; only male landowners could vote. Universal suffrage would have to wait until 1928. (

The issue of rotten boroughs appears in other places where two areas with vastly different populations get an unfair share of government representation. In the United States, the Dakota territory was given 4 seats in the senate and California was given 2. Today, California has about 40 million people and North and South Dakota together have less than 2 million. While the Dakota's are not as extreme a case as Old Sarum, they have still been criticised as a rotten borough. Do you agree? Which seats in Hong Kong's political system might be called rotten boroughs? 

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Another method of unfairly winning elections is the traditional American system of gerrymandering. Using this method, the borders of electoral districts are changed in such a way as to split opposing voters and combining one’s own supporters. The word gerrymander derives from the name of Elbridge Gerry, who was the fifth vice president of the United States. He is best known for creatively changing the electoral districts of the State of Massachusetts, when he was state governor. By creating strange and twisted shapes on the electoral map he ensured an unfair advantage for his party.* 

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Are the electoral districts in Hong Kong arranged to give one side an advantage? How unequal are the numbers of voters? If so, do the maths and try to show a fairer way to arrange the votes. Can you think of other places that have rotten boroughs and gerrymandering? I am not going to tell you what your opinion should be, but I ask you to use the correct words. 

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* It isn't only in the US where this happens. British Northern Ireland is often referred to as Ulster, but it includes only six of the nine counties of the historical province of Ulster, because including all nine would have given a Catholic majority who might have voted to join the Irish Free State.

Related articles:

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Protester, Demonstrator & Rioter

Universal Suffrage &c.

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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