One Nation, Gerrymandered

November 28, 2012

by E. Sebastian Arduengo

Gerrymandering is such a tried and tested electioneering technique that one might think that the founders intended for political parties to draw boundaries for congressional districts to suit their interests. Given that one of the first uses of the gerrymander was on the part of Anti-Federalists in Virginia to keep James Madison out of the House of Representatives that may well be the case. But, after a round of district drawing following the 2010 census, have the parties finally taken it too far? Now that the 2012 election results are in, for the most part, we can see the effect of partisan redistricting on the composition of the House. While that effect probably wasn’t enough to shift control of the House to the Democrats, it was enough to heavily dilute Democratic voters in several key states.

But, before getting into that, what allows political parties to exercise so much control over the process of drawing congressional districts in the first place? The Constitution mandates that congressional districts be re-drawn after every census to reflect changes in population distribution; but how this is accomplished is largely left to states’ discretion. The two bedrock principles all states are supposed to abide by are “one person, one vote,” the idea that voters in different districts should have roughly equivalent voting power; and that districts cannot be drawn for the purpose of diluting minority voting power. However, in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, the Supreme Court largely rejected a challenge brought by Texas voters that the redistricting scheme dreamed up by the Republican legislature was wholly unconstitutional, in part because the justices believed that there was no workable test for judging partisan excess.

In the round of mostly Republican redistricting that accompanied the 2010 census, partisan excess might have been taken to an entirely new level, as more than 194 lawsuits were filed, and even now, lawsuits are pending in 11 states over how district lines were drawn. The Supreme Court has also granted certiorari in Shelby County v. Holder, which will test the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires jurisdictions which have a history of racial discrimination to have any changes in election procedure “pre-cleared” by the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C.

But, even in states that are not covered by the VRA, partisan control over the redistricting process served to amplify the control of the majority party beyond all reason. Pennsylvania, which lost a seat in the House as a result of the 2010 census, faced a particularly partisan gerrymander. When the Pennsylvania State Senate Government Committee, voted to approve maps that came from a Republican-driven process, Republican Senator Mike Folmer broke with his party, saying that the map was specifically drawn to dilute democratic votes and served as a clear example of the necessity of redistricting reform. What the map did was to combine two Democratic districts in the Pittsburgh Area and increase the proportion of Democratic leaning voters in a suburban Philadelphia district to make the neighboring districts safer for Republican incumbents.

The result was on plain view in the 2012 election. On average in Pennsylvania, it took two and a half votes to elect a Democrat to Congress for every one vote it took to elect a Republican. The same pattern repeated itself in states where Republican-dominated legislatures and commissions drew congressional district maps. In Ohio and Virginia it took about as many Democratic votes as in Pennsylvania, per Republican vote, to get a Democrat elected, and in North Carolina, it took a staggering three votes to get a Democrat elected for every vote it took to get a Republican elected. In real terms, that means that while Republican House candidates in Pennsylvania only won about 50 percent of the state-wide popular vote, they carried almost 75 percent of the seats.

This isn’t to say that gerrymandering is a one-way street. In states where Democrats controlled state legislatures, like Maryland and Illinois, Democrats engaged in partisan map-drawing that rivaled anything the Republicans did. For example, in Maryland, by spreading out minority voters in suburban Washington, D.C., Democrats now control all but one congressional district in the state, despite Republicans having close to 40 percent of the statewide vote.

As vote counting comes down to an exact science, politicians of all stripes will use the data that science yields to effectively hand-pick their constituents, with a fine-tuned granularity not possible before. While that’s opportune for incumbents, who are re-elected to the House of Representatives a whopping 95 percent of the time, on average, it’s unfortunate for voters of all stripes, who increasingly find they are voting in uncompetitive races. For people’s voices to really count, the elections they’re cast in have to be horse races rather than one-sided contests. This is why it is imperative that more states in the nation follow the lead of California and establish independent commissions to draw districts with clear criteria including: Contiguity, political boundaries, and compactness; to ensure that the greatest diversity of voices are heard in congressional elections.

[image via Wikimedia Commons]