Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gerrymandering: What is it and What can YOU do about it

Well the US Census figures are out and it's the season for Redistricting.  So what does the Census have to do with Redistricting?  Back in the late 1780s, when our Forefathers were trying to figure out how to run this country, they were pretty much inventing a new political system and needed to figure out a way to elect political representatives.  So the agreement they came to is in Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative;  [The sentence that is linked was amended by the 14th Amendment in 1868 after the Civil War.]
The enumeration has become known as the US Census and as it is laid out in the Constitution is is conducted every 10 years.  Nowadays the Census is much more than a head count.  The Census Bureau collects all kinds of data from housing to racial makeup to income, but it's first charge is to come up with population figures for each state in the union.  The reason why population was considered the determining factor in representation was because the power of the people was what was considered important, not the power of the states.

Nowadays, with a population of over 308 million inhabitants, having Congressional districts with only 30,000 persons (and this is everyone, including prisoners, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, originally slaves were included in the count (3/5 of a person) to help the South get more representatives) would mean that there would be over 10,000 US Representatives.  This is a rather unwieldy number so the number of inhabitants per district has gone up to over 700,000 per district.  In order to not have to be constantly changing the number of inhabitants per district, in 1929 Congress enacted the Reapportionment Act of 1929, which capped the number of US Congressmen (representatives) at 435 members.

So as the population rises and shifts from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, districts shift, grow or merge.  Some states with declining populations, such as Michigan, actually lose Congressional seats, while states with growing populations like Texas, gain seats (Michigan -1, Texas +4).

The duty to redraw district lines falls to each individual state legislature and they each have their own ways of dealing with reapportionment.  District lines are supposed to be drawn to include communities of common interest, take into account geographical regions and features, and have fairly equal populations.  Usually redistricting is handled by a state legislative sponsored committee, largely made up of politicians.  This year for the first time, California is experimenting with a 14-member Citizen Redistricting Committee chosen from a pool of 30,000 applicants.

So why would California hand off its redistricting duty to citizens?  Many people find the legislative handling of redistricting to be less about the people choosing their representatives and more about the representatives choosing their voters.  This is definitely not what the Founders intended.  Back in high school government class you may have heard the term Gerrymandering.  This term refers to a district drawn by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1812 under the Governorship of Eldridge Gerry.  The districts were drawn to give an advantage to Gerry's political party, thus insuring their reelection.  One district was so convoluted it resembled a salamander, so the name Gerrymander was coined.  
Source: Wikimedia Commons
But this was not the first case of a contrived district. In a recent broadcast on the Diane Rehm Show about the Constitution and redistricting, one of her guests, Sean O'Brien of the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier, told an interesting story about a manipulated district.

The history of gerrymandering predates the name gerrymandering and goes back to actually before the first Congress even existed. So Patrick Henry was governor of Virginia, he was an anti-Federalist, James Madison was a Federalist. Patrick Henry arranged for James Madison not to get elected to the Senate because at that time, the Senate was chosen by the members of the state legislature. So James Madison was going to have to run for Congress if he wanted to be able to introduce the Bill of Rights.

He had been then appointed to the last continental Congress so that he had to travel up to New York to be part of that, or Philadelphia, rather, to be part of that Congress so he wouldn't be able to run locally. And so his friends were saying, James you have got to come back and campaign in your district because the district that has been drawn for you, as described by one person as having 1,000 eccentric angles and it was drawn to put him in the same district with James Monroe who was an anti-Federalist at the time.
Gerrymandering in the past was not only used to keep districts loyal to certain parties.  The practice was also used to separate racial minorities from their peers to keep them from developing political clout.  This practice is now illegal and was outlawed by the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.  However, the practice of drawing districts to favor political parties is still legal and has actually been upheld by the Supreme Court.   

So now we get to redistricting in Texas.  In 2003, Texas Democrats famously went on the lam to Oklahoma to prevent quorum so the new, Tom Delay sponsored, redistricting plan couldn't be brought up for vote.   After 4 days they returned with a promise that the plan would not be brought up for a vote during the regular session.   But as soon as the regular session was over Governor Rick Perry (R) called a special session specifically to vote on the redistricting plan.  This time the plan passed.  Democratic State Senators (the Texas Eleven), again tried to block the vote by fleeing to New Mexico for 46 days.  Tom Delay even suggested having the FBI arrest the senators because he considered the issue of federal significance.  Senator John Whitmire (D) finally broke, went back to the special session and the plan passed.
Changes in Congressional Districts Source: Wikimedia Commons

Democrats, however, were not willing to give up the fight and in 2006 took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.  They claimed that the new redistricting plan, unusual because it was made in an off-Census year when Republicans had a majority in the House, was unconstitutional and that it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  But as the Washington Post reported the court didn't agree.
The Supreme Court upheld most of Texas's Republican-drafted 2003 congressional redistricting plan yesterday in a ruling that could prompt majority parties in other states to redraw political maps to their advantage.

The endorsement of the plan, which former House majority leader Tom DeLay crafted to tilt Texas's congressional delegation to the GOP, was not absolute. By a vote of 5 to 4, the court ruled that a sprawling West Texas district represented by Henry Bonilla (R) violates the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the voting power of Latinos.

But seven justices rejected at least part of the opponents' broadest contention: that the entire Texas plan is unconstitutional because the legislature rewrote a previous court-drawn map, three years after the most recent census, out of nothing more than a desire for Republican advantage.
Just a sidebar to this, Henry Bonilla, who didn't get his district redrawn, lost his next election to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez.

So, what can we non-politicians do about partisan redistricting?  Well, first and foremost, VOTE.  Secondly, learn more about the redistricting process. Columbia University Law School students in the Redistricting and Gerrymandering course are working on the first non-partisan redistricting map for all 435 districts in the country.  Their website, gives options for maps that they hope legislatures will consider when redrawing district boundaries.  They also invite anyone who is interested to come up with their own plans.
Anyone interested in participating in the project and submitting plans should contact Professor Nathaniel Persily at All submitted plans must include statewide and district-specific maps, as well as a block equivalency file in “.csv” format.
Columbia is using the Maptitude for Redistricting software to draw their maps.  But there is also open source software at the Public Mapping Project.  Both the site and the Public Mapping Project will take you through the process of redistricting and the Public Mapping Project even has a Citizen's Guide to Redistricting.

So, How do YOU want to draw Congressional District Boundaries?????

1 comment:

  1. Because of their utilitarian origins, the first three, four and five digits of a zip code are still the most honest delineators of community boundaries. Any reapportioners who refuse to notice this should be prosecuted up to the Supreme Court and imprisoned.