“Gerrymandering” has been in the news a lot lately.
And what is it?
I was vague on answers to both, so I did some research. I discovered the answers to both are pretty interesting.
Let’s go with the “what” first.
The word “gerrymander” has been around for more than 200 years, and is used by whichever U.S. political party in in the minority. The minority accuses the majority of gerrymandering until the majority party becomes the minority.
Then it’s their turn to hurl accusations of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has to do with the process of redistricting, that is, redrawing legislative districts. The recent news stories have to do with congressional redistricting, that is, the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Constitution requires congressional seats to be reapportioned among the states after each census with each federal district having an equal population “as nearly as is practicable.” After the 2010 census, here’s how the congressional districts looked:
If the 2010 census had revealed that California had lost half its population and all those people moved to Vermont, then California would lose a lot of U.S. Representatives and Vermont would gain a lot.
On the other hand, the U.S. population is always increasing, but the number of U.S. Representatives is not. That number is 435, and it was etched in stone in 1929 with the Permanent Apportionment Act. So while the number of Representatives stays the same, the number of people they represent increases.
Hey – I said it was “interesting,” not that it made sense.
In a majority of states, legislators and governors redraw the boundaries of U.S. House districts.
And sometimes those doing the redrawing can get, well…let’s say “creative.”
Like back in 1812. Then, as now, there were two major political parties: the Federalists, and the Democratic-Republicans. That year the state of Massachusetts adopted new constitutionally mandated electoral district boundaries.
The Massachusetts legislature, controlled by the Democratic-Republicans, had created district boundaries designed to enhance their party’s control over state and national offices, leading to some oddly shaped legislative districts.
The practice wasn’t new. But here comes the new name for it.
Although the governor, Elbridge Gerry, was unhappy about the highly partisan districting, he signed the legislation. In a Boston newspaper the odd shape of one of the state senate districts in Essex County was portrayed as a salamander with claws, wings and a dragon-type head, and dubbed the “Gerry-mander,” a combination of Gerry and salamander:
|This political cartoon in an 1812 Boston newspaper, depicting a state senate district in Essex County, MA, satirized its strange shape and named it a “Gerry-mander.” The image on the right shows the district’s shape and location in Massachusetts.|
Sadly for Governor Gerry, the name and all its negative connotations caught on, and that’s about all he’s remembered for. And since then, the redrawing of districts perceived to be favorable to one party over the other has been called gerrymandering.
Today, gerrymandering has evolved to have its own lexicon including:
- Cracking: Diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts.
- Packing: Concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts.
- Homogenization: Essentially a form of cracking where the majority party uses its superior numbers to guarantee the minority party never attains a majority in any district.
And speaking of getting creative, it wasn’t only 19th century newspapers mocking the practice of gerrymandering; a few years ago ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative organization, introduced their music video, “The Redistricting Song.” You can see it on YouTube:
Now comes the “why” gerrymandering has been in the news recently:
- On March 26 the Supreme Court considered challenges to congressional district maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and in Maryland, drawn by Democrats.
- On April 25 a federal court in Michigan ruled that the state’s Republican-controlled legislature unfairly drew some of Michigan’s state legislative and U.S. House district lines. The court says the legislature must pass and the governor must sign into law new maps by August 1; otherwise the court will draw the new maps itself. Republicans vowed to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, which could issue a stay pending a decision this summer on the North Carolina and Maryland redistricting cases.
- On May 3 a federal court in Cincinnati tossed out Ohio’s congressional map, ruling that Republican state lawmakers had carved up the state to give themselves an illegal partisan advantage and to dilute Democrats’ votes in a way that predetermined the outcome of elections. The ruling ordered new maps to be drawn by June 14 to be used for the 2020 election. The ruling will go directly to the United States Supreme Court for review.
So in Maryland, Republicans are accusing Democrats of gerrymandering.
In North Carolina, Michigan and Ohio, it’s the Democrats accusing the Republicans.
And now front and center is the Supreme Court, which has long restricted gerrymandering based on race, but has never struck down a voting map as being too partisan.
According to a May 3 article in The New York Times,
In the cases now before the Supreme Court, a central issue is whether courts can draw a bright line between acceptable political maps and ones whose partisan aims overstep constitutional bounds, a question the justices have struggled with for decades.
Chief Justice John Roberts has openly worried that the court could be perceived as acting in a partisan way if it intervenes in such inherently political decisions.
But, the article continues,
After a series of lower courts have thrown out partisan maps, “it’s becoming harder and harder for the Supreme Court to claim that there’s no possible way for courts to manage claims like these,” said Justin Levitt, the associate dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It shows that courts can and do manage these cases just fine, with reasonable opinions that don’t look simply like the judges are wearing partisan hats.”
The whole gerrymandering and redistricting problem could be, if not solved, then at least alleviated if the redistricting was done by independent commissions:
An independent redistricting commission is a body vested with the authority to draft and implement electoral district maps. The composition of independent commissions varies from state to state. However, in all cases, the direct participation of elected officials is limited.
And six states do have those independent commissions for both congressional and state legislative redistricting: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington.
But that’s only six. Here’s how the congressional redistricting process looks as of 2017:
- The seven states (light grey) marked N/A have one congressional district each, so redistricting is unnecessary.
- In two states (dark grey), politician commissions draw the lines.
- In four states (yellow), independent commissions draw congressional district lines.
- In 37 states (red), state legislatures are primarily responsible for congressional redistricting.
Let’s get real here. See all those red states? Allowing state legislatures to do their own redistricting is like asking the proverbial fox to guard the hen house.
Remember those four states with gerrymandering cases either before or soon-to-be-before the Supreme Court? If a majority political party had its way, here’s how the federal redistricting maps in those four states – and all states – would look, with the minority party’s district in red:
But change is coming. Six of the red states in the above map have passed amendments to change their redistricting process to reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering.
However…those changes won’t happen until after the 2020 census is complete.
The results of the 2020 census won’t become available until December 31, 2020.
So the changes these six states make in their redistricting process won’t affect the 2020 election.
But what the Supreme Court decides about North Carolina, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio will affect the 2020 election.
So, I say this to our Supreme Court justices:
Pull up your big-boy and big-girl pants, wade into this morass, drain this swamp, and set redistricting guidelines.
Isn’t this why we pay you the big bucks? And give you jobs for life? And big, fat pensions? And three months paid vacation every summer?
To make the tough, important decisions?
Justices, do your job.
And I mean now, before for the 2020 election.
The Supreme Court is is due to issue a number of rulings before the end of its term this week.
One of those rulings will be about the partisan manipulation of electoral district boundaries – gerrymandering:
This decision will affect us for the next 10 years –
until the next census – and far beyond that.