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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Gerrymandering and the End of Democracy

The US Supreme Court issued a ruling June 28, 2006 affirming the rights of states to change district boundaries for elections at will. The case arose out of the 2003 redistricting within the state of Texas, coordinated in large part by (then) Republican Representative and Majority Leader Tom DeLay. To maximize the incoherence of the Court's decision and supporting logic, as part of the larger redistricting case, the Court rejected one change that, in the Court's opinion, unduly impacted Hispanic voters in a Laredo area district.

It's hard to imagine any other ruling that could make less sense or do more harm to the political process and the goal of representative, RESPONSIVE democracy within the United States.

Redrawing of district boundaries is intended to ensure equal proportionate representation of all citizens across all Congressional district so each member of the 435 member House represents the same number of Americans. The Constitution only states that House seats should represent equal proportions of citizens across the nation. It provides no rules on how boundary lines can be arranged to corral exactly X citizens in each district to satisfy the rule.

Historically, states have redrawn congressional districts once every ten years since the release of new census data obviously provides an official source of population data by which to drive the process. Tom DeLay worked with Texas state Republicans in 2003 to initiate redistricting to help arrange districts along demographic lines helpful to Republican candidates. The Texas Republicans argued at the time the changes were initiated to correct prior redistricting abuses by Texas Democrats. That argument is immaterial to the real issues raised by the Supreme Court's decision.

In the Court's ruling, it stated the Court had no basis on which to block states from changing district boundaries since neither the Constitution nor Congress cite specific rules limiting when redistricting can occur. While technically correct, this logic undermines the perfectly non-partisan practice of redistricting ONCE immediately after each 10-year census. This practice makes PERFECT sense since the census numbers are produced on a predictable basis without partisan influence and those numbers serve as a single NATIONAL source of population data about which districting decisions directly related to NATIONAL population are made.

What's so wrong with the Supreme Court's decision?

The redistricting changes in Texas had nothing to do with correcting boundaries due to sudden population shifts. If Louisiana decided to redraw its boundaries after losing 200,000 citizens in New Orleans to hurricane relocations, that makes PERFECT sense. In Texas, the boundaries were moved in 2003 to scatter voters deemed likely to vote for the "other party" across more districts, producing more safe seats for "our party." The Texas delegation to the US Congress swung from a 17-15 Democratic majority to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Tough luck for the loser, right?

Wrong. Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters who wind up as marginalized electoral minorities in the "victor's" district. However, gerrymandering also disenfranchises voters in the majority too. In the case of Texas, if you're a swing voter who might typically vote Republican but occasionally votes Democratic, your ability to swing the vote is eliminated if your district becomes a Republican safe seat. You can switch the labels any way you want, the process works the same regardless.

More safe seats in a representative democracy will be the death knell for representative democracy. Incumbents become more entrenched, less responsive to swing voters, more responsive to those lining their pockets and policy debates will swing to the extremes of any parties involved. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

If the Court's decision still doesn't jump out at you as a colossal mistake, just read these two paragraphs from the Yahoo news story on comments from Justices Roberts and Kennedy:

Chief Justice John Roberts, participating in his first major voting rights case, rejected that. "The state has drawn a redistricting plan that provides six of seven congressional districts with an effective majority of Latino voting-age citizens in south and west Texas, and it is not possible to provide more," he said.

Kennedy reached the opposite conclusion with respect to black voters in an area around Fort Worth. Rep. Martin Frost (news, bio, voting record), the area's former Democratic congressman, is white, and Kennedy wrote that since there had been no competitive primary for 20 years, "no obvious benchmark exists for deciding whether African-Americans could elect their candidate of choice."

Lots of words about "whites", "blacks", "Latinos". Lots of court speculation on what candidate might be able to win a given district based on past trends, the candidate's race, and demographics in the district. NOTHING that should come in to play when satisfying the Constitution's requirement to ensure equal numbers of citizens in each district to support "1 person, 1 vote" fairness.

How hard could it be to remove "gerrymandering" from our political vocabulary? Every 10 years,

  1. get the census data for the population of the US

  2. divide population by 435 to get X (number of citizens per district)

  3. for each state, devide its population by X to get D (# of districts in this state

  4. use address information collected by the census or inferred by the census (they don't literally COUNT everyone) and mapping software to create exactly D districts whose boundaries produce the most regular shaped borders with the smallest perimeter distance for each district that contains roughly X citizens

Voila! THOSE are your congressional districts. No political intrigue. All based on public data. Nothing based on race, demographic or economic data. Citizens with roughly similar political concerns based upon geography are grouped together yet politicians didn't get to choose the divisions for their own benefit.