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If Elections Were a Sport, Redistricting Would Be Cheating

By Pete Shuler · May 10th, 2001 · Statehouse
The purpose of nearly any competition is to determine the best or, in some cases, the luckiest individual or team from a field of competitors. To isolate the skill being tested, rules prevent competitors from gaining an unfair advantage over one another. Runners cover the same distance to reach the finish line, weightlifters heave the same iron overhead, high school seniors struggle over the same college entrance exams and lottery hopefuls face the same staggering odds.

Such competitions would be devoid of meaning if one contestant were given an unfair advantage at the onset. Imagine if one wrestler were permitted to place his opponent in shackles, or if one football team were allowed to field 20 players. Such aberrations from the traditional rules seem preposterous, because they are preposterously unfair.

In politics, however, an arena in which the outcome of the contest actually matters, gaining such an unfair advantage is not only permitted, it is considered the right of the ruling party.

Every 10 years, coinciding with the completion of the national census, state and federal politicians redraw the boundaries that delineate congressional districts, a process known as "redistricting." This reshuffling is necessary, because populations shift both among and within states, and districts must be redrawn so each state or federal congressional representative is backed by approximately the same number of voters. At the federal level, and in most states, the privilege of redrawing these boundaries belongs to the majority party.

Legislators at all levels use this redistricting authority to gain maximum political leverage. They construct district boundaries that cluster supporters of the minority party into as few districts as possible, while simultaneously spreading majority party proponents over the remaining districts in large enough numbers to win those districts.

Perhaps the most infamous politician to gain political advantage through redistricting was Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, this founding father created a salamander-esque district that yielded two additional congressional seats for Republicans, and gerrymandering was born.

Instead of the compact districts that would result from redistricting based on an objective analysis of population density, gerrymandering creates districts the shapes of which unabashedly proclaim their vote-clumping objectives: long, thin districts, stretching for miles and miles, perhaps no more than a quarter-mile wide; barbell-shaped districts, a thin corridor connecting two segments often miles apart from each other; splatter-shaped districts, amorphous centers with shoots extending out to pull in specific groups of voters; districts completely surrounded by another to carve out undesirable votes from the encompassing district; and districts splitting towns and villages that would logically be drawn into one district.

The data-gathering and analysis capabilities of computers have fueled the potency of such strategies. Armed with detailed demographic data, computers and software that churn statistically relevant answers and maps from that mountain of numbers and consultant-specialists who keep the process running smoothly, legislators are progressing from making educated guesses about district boundaries to drawing boundaries that nearly guarantee the continuance of their party's majority. As technology advances, redistricting decisions will only get more accurate.

Amazingly, the judicial branch of our government has historically blessed the practice of gerrymandering. Last month, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court found a congressional district to be constitutional, because its "bizarre shapes" were based not on race, as the appellants had claimed, but on gaining political advantage. The court's decision bears repeating: the district in question is constitutional, because its boundaries were drawn to gain political advantage.

By carefully constructing district boundaries to concentrate the power of the ruling party, gerrymandering may give the ruling party's members a voice in government while silencing those who belong to other parties.

But ironically even constituents of a ruling party may not be served well by the protectionist nature of redistricting. Since many Americans vote strictly along party lines, representatives of districts artificially protected by gerrymandering have less incentive to truly listen to the needs of any of the people they represent. The competitive nature of politics is the only real link between constituents and their representatives. Overprotecting the representative weakens that link and, perhaps, the responsiveness of the representative.

It would be difficult for anyone to argue that gerrymandering is in the best interest of the electorate.

CONTACT PETE SCHULER: letters@citybeat.com


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