REDISTRICTING: How our Representatives Select Voters

December 7, 2010

Two student readings describe the origin of the gerrymander, its likely effects following the 2010 elections, and efforts to reform redistricting systems. Discussion questions and suggestions for further student inquiry and citizenship follow.

To the Teacher:

Every ten years when new census data comes in, politicians seize the opportunity to gerrymander election districts, despite their clear conflict of interest. The first student reading below describes the origin of the gerrymander, its impact on election districts, and the likely effects of gerrymandering in at least 18 states as a result of the 2010 elections. The second reading provides information about reform efforts in California and Florida. Discussion questions and suggestions for further student inquiry and citizenship follow.

 


Student Reading 1:

The gerrymander

In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a new set of election districts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party (yes, there was such a party in those days).

One looked like a salamander, which led the Boston Gazette newspaper on March 26,1812, to call the result a "Gerry-mander." This gave birth to a new word, "gerrymander"— a way of manipulating the shape of an election district to include or exclude certain groups of voters and produce an advantage for a particular political party (that is, the party in power that wanted the gerrymander). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering#Origin_of_the_term)

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires a census every ten years. Once the Census Bureau releases the new population statistics, states may need to adjust congressional districts because changes in state population may entitle some states to add congressional representatives, and require other states to lose them.

Usually the people doing the redistricting are the same state legislators who represent the districts—which means they have a conflict of interest. Gerrymandered districts are the frequent result: lopsided boundary lines created for the benefit of those legislators and their political party allies in the House of Representatives. As the United States Election Project puts it, "representatives select voters rather than voters elect representatives." (www.electproject.org/)

But legislators today creating gerrymandered districts have tools Governor Gerry did not have back in 1812. Namely:

  • computers
  • mapping technology
  • detailed knowledge of the political preferences of voters from registration records
  • lawyers to deal with legal problems and produce the desired results

The end product, declares the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Common Cause, is "gerrymandered redistricting maps, collusion among the major political parties to create safe congressional and state legislative districts, and the packing and splitting of concentrations of voters to weaken or strengthen their influence to gain partisan advantage." This, says Common Cause essentially enables legislators to "choose the voters they wish to represent and makes it difficult for voters to hold their elected officials accountable." (www.commoncause.org)

On election eve, November 1, 2010, Democrats controlled 52 of the 88 state legislative chambers, while 33 had a Republican majority. Several others were mixed or nonpartisan.

Most Americans with an interest in the November 2, 2010 elections had their minds fixed on reports about candidates for state and federal positions. But some knew the election results in state legislature races could determine whether Democrats or Republicans would control the re-drawing of election district lines prescribed by the Constitution.

As election results came in on November 2 and the days afterward, they showed almost an exact turnaround: Republicans now control 52 state chambers, Democrats only 31, and two are still to be determined. Republicans also dominated governorships, leading 29-18, with several races undecided. Republicans now have a substantial majority in the U.S. House of Representatives as well.

As a result, nineteen states will probably have to redistrict.

"Republicans plan to press their advantage," said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who leads the Republican Governors Association "By controlling a majority or more of reapportionment states, we can make sure that the Democrats don't take from us tomorrow what we fought so hard for today." (www.bloomberg.com, 11/4/10)

Republican gains in state legislatures give them more power to redraw election district maps, if the census makes that necessary. And that, in turn, will enable them to influence elections for the House of Representatives for the next 10 years. Republican governors in a majority of states have the power to veto redistricting plans sent to them from divided or Democratic-controlled state legislatures. This will produce political bargaining between the parties. But whether Republicans win or Democrats win, the losers all too often are fair elections

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What effect does new census information every ten years have on election districts?

3. Define a "safe" election district. Define "gerrymander" and its significance for redistricting election districts. How does a gerrymander create a situation in which voters elect representatives who select voters?

4. What effects will the census and the most recent election have on election districts?

 


Student Reading 2:

Reforming the gerrymander
 

Citizens in a number of states have become very angry about a redistricting system that has produced almost 200 years of gerrymandering.

In 2008, Californians voted for a ballot proposition to take away from members of the state Senate and Assembly the power to draw district lines. Voters were fed up, according the Los Angeles Times, because the "inherent conflict in that process produced predictable results in the last redistricting: Democrats created seats that protected incumbent Democrats, and Republicans went along because Democrats cut a deal to create safe Republican seats as well."

The 2008 vote established a nonpartisan citizens commission to take over the business of drawing lines for state legislative positions. But supporters of the old system did not give up. In the 2010 election, they managed to put Proposition 27 on the ballot. This measure would have eliminated the commission and given the power of redistricting to the legislature.

The LA Times reported the results. "Not only did [the voters] turn down Proposition 27... but they also approved Proposition 20 (62% in favor) which extends the commission's power to drawing lines for congressional seats as well as legislative ones." (11/8/10) Commissioners are to come in equal numbers from Democrats, Republicans, and others from neither party.

The nonpartisan Rose Report has concluded that California's new Citizen's Redistricting Commission "offers the most independent process found anywhere in the country."
(www.rosereport.org)

At the same time, Alan Fein writes for Huffington Post that in Florida, "there was an important story of reform — real, perhaps revolutionary election reform... Florida Constitutional Amendments 5 and 6, designed to limit the power of legislators to design their districts to guarantee their reelection, were approved by over 62 percent of Florida voter. Reforms like Amendments 5 and 6 are have been pushed by good government advocates in both parties, have been instituted in handful of other states, and are needed everywhere...

"Over the last few years," Fein writes, "gerrymandering has literally become a science. Computer programming allows the party in power to draw district lines block-by-block, carving voters of a particular persuasion in or out of district. Ultimately, legislators were picking their voters rather than voters picking their legislators...

"In Florida, at least, the voters had enough of legislators choosing their voters rather than allowing voters to choose who they want to elect. The amendments passed Tuesday prohibit drawing district lines to favor or disfavor any incumbent or political party; they require districts to be compact and to utilize existing political and geographical boundaries, while at the same time protecting minority voting rights." ("Redistricting Reform in Florida," www.huffingtonpost.com, 11/6/10

Redistricting in Florida, even with new rules, will still be determined by state legislators, and a Florida court will decide if the results are fair.

Two Florida legislators, Mario Diaz-Balart and Corinne Brown, immediately challenged the new rules in court on the grounds that the amendments will harm minorities. Gary Fineout reported in the Florida Tribune that "Rep. Brown said, 'I am absolutely convinced that if they are carried out as prescribed, our state will immediately revert to the time period prior to 1992, when Florida was devoid of African-American or Hispanic representation.' Supporters of the amendments say that both contain a provision that says minority rights won't be harmed." (www.fltrib.com, 11/3/10, source no longer active)

Together, California and Florida have 78 congressional districts, which is about 18 percent of all congressional districts in the nation. Assuming that the Florida vote is not overturned in court, the laws approved in these states can spur change in others.

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What has made gerrymandering "a science"?

3. What effects will the 2008 and 2010 California votes have on gerrymandering in that state and why?

4. How is the Florida redistricting reform different from California's? How would you assess each new system?

5. Is redistricting required now in your state? Why or why not?

 


For inquiry

Among the issues for further class discussion and possible inquiry:

  • an examination of a districting map and gerrymandering in the students' state
  • how Texas, which gained four additional House positions and Ohio, which lost two,redistrict
  • how 17 other states affected by census results will redistrict
  • how Common Cause is promoting redistricting (See, for example, information aboutits successful California efforts at www.commoncause.org/CA


For citizenship

If a student investigation determines that their state has gerrymandered districts, they might consider publicizing their findings and campaigning for independent redistricting commissions.

If the students' state is involved in a redistricting process or will soon have a new districting system, students might, in either case, investigate the particulars of the situation for possible student citizenship action.

See for specific suggestions "Teaching Social Responsibility" on TeachableMoment.

 

 

 

 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.