Pop quiz: When lawmakers meet to study the 2020 census results and redraw their congressional and state legislative districts, their overriding goal is generally:
A. Creating an attractive map in which the boundaries resemble birds in full flight and cute rainforest creatures.
B. Creating districts with clear, logical lines that have no relationship to political advantage whatsoever.
C. Destroying the other party and making sure their own personal districts are totally safe even if they get caught torturing small puppies.
Yeah, yeah. I know you know.
Decennial redistricting doesn’t dance off the tongue, but it is important, and this season, as usual, there’s plenty worth howling about.
It sometimes helps to give the most egregious examples funny names, just to get some attention. The Third Congressional District in Maryland was once known as the “broken-winged pterodactyl” because of the very peculiar way it was carved out. A writer described one proposed Texas district as looking “a bit like a gulper shark, with two dorsal fins protruding from its back.”
The problem here is gerrymandering. We all know — OK, some of us know — that the term came from the early-19th-century Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who happened to be in office when lawmakers drew up a map featuring one salamander-shaped district that critics referred to as a gerrymander.
This was deeply unfair since Gerry had virtually nothing to do with the mapmaking. We should all remember him for his real accomplishments, like, um, his intense support for the War of 1812.
One of the worst things about sneaky partisan line-drawing is the way it can drain power from minority voters. Sometimes this is due to racism and sometimes just pure political plotting, but either way it’s terrible.
Texas is getting two new congressional seats, thanks to a population boom fueled by minority residents, Hispanics in particular. Are you surprised, people, to hear that the Republican redistricting plan features one less majority-Hispanic district than the state has now?
There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution about gerrymandering, and reformers who turn to the courts generally have to rely on state constitutions. Consider Ohio, where back in the last cycle one district was stretched so thin it was called the “snake by the lake.” The snake was created by Republicans who wanted to make two Democratic incumbents compete for the same seat, even though said lawmakers lived about 100 miles apart.
“Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to create a bipartisan redistricting commission,” said Prentiss Haney of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which has been fighting this fight for years. It’s a noble battle, but probably one that’s difficult to get people to discuss at social events not dominated by redistricting groupies.
Said bipartisan commission, Haney told me, was still dominated by Republicans, whose efforts were not exactly a model of even-handedness: “We sued, and the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the maps were illegal.” The beat went on and the commission is still at work, having been sent back a second time by the court. New maps are supposed to be in by the end of this week, after which, Haney noted, “we have three days to object.”
You may wonder whether by now Haney feels that he’s been devoting his entire life to Ohio district boundary lines. The answer is yes. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the frustration of the process proves the point of why we’re doing it.”
There has to be a special place in heaven for people who spend their time making this process fair or even reasonable. I know you’d like to be among them, but deep in your heart a lot of you are just pondering which party will end up with the advantage in the next election.
“There was a lot of expectation the Republicans were going to exploit the process and that would give them control of the House,” said Ken Miller, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “But it looks like the Democrats will come out at least equal and maybe advantaged.”
Ha, Democrats! I’ll bet some of you figured your side was doomed because of Republican chicanery. But look at New York, which has a Democratic governor and a legislature with a whopping Democratic majority. It’s losing one seat in Congress because of dropping population, but thanks to what Miller calls “creative line-drawing,” its delegation will probably have three more Democrats.
“We were expecting to do well in New York and now, we’ll lose four seats and the Old Broken-Down Crow, Mitch McConnell, sits back and does nothing to help the party,” complained Donald Trump, managing to both get the number wrong and blame someone who has as much to do with redistricting in New York as Brad Pitt.
If the Democrats are taking the advantage, it has nothing whatsoever to do with a better sense of civic virtue among the opposition. Up in Wisconsin, Republicans managed to come up with a plan in which 62 of the 99 seats in the State Assembly would have a larger percentage of Republicans than the state as a whole.
On the plus side, in this troubled age of mega-decibel ideological shrieking, it’s kinda soothing to see everybody behaving like the sneaky, pragmatic back-room pols of yore. I know that’s a pretty desperate reaching for good cheer. But we do what we can.
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