Every 10 years states get the chance to redraw boundaries for their congressional and legislative districts. The change is supposed to reflect the views of the ever-changing population so that everyone is represented fairly. However, over the years legislators from both parties have found ways to take advantage of it.
Redrawing districts based on population started way back with George Washington and the Apportionment Act of 1792. It said that US Representatives would be apportioned to their states following each census. It also stated that districts must be equally populated, contiguous and compact. One hundred and thirty-seven years later the Reapportionment Act of 1929 got rid of size and population requirements. It didn’t take long after that for those in charge to find ways to start manipulating the law to fit their needs.
Because each district is won by a majority, basic principle was and still is to waste votes by packing excess votes needed to win into one area. By moving geographic lines, those in power concentrate the opposition into a few areas so the state’s overall number of districts will favor incumbents.
The term Gerry-mander was first used by the Boston Gazette in reference to Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. In 1812, he redrew state senate election districts to benefit his party (the Democratic-Republican Party). The name supposedly was a combination of his last name and the shape of the new district which resembled a salamander. Thus Gerry-mander, which later was shortened to gerrymander.
Approximately half of all US states leave redistricting responsibilities up to their legislatures. Twelve states currently determine redistricting by independent committees. Michigan which voted in favor of Proposal 2 last November is set to become number 13. It’s currently in the process of taking names for the 13 positions on the council. Four of the positions will be held by democrats, 4 by republicans, and 5 by independents. The members will be chosen by a random drawing later this year. Five eastern states (Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia use independent councils too, however their legislatures have final control over the committees’ plans.
The trend toward bipartisan or independent redistricting committees is often attributed to the public’s growing distrust of government and political agendas. In addition to fairness and leveling the playing field, restoring public faith in the system is often cited as reason for the moves.
When states can’t come to a consensus on redistricting it often falls to state or even federal courts to resolve such disputes. Two such cases, Rucho v. Common Cause a complaint about Republican gerrymandering in North Carolina and Lamone v. Benisek a Democratic gerrymandering case out of Maryland are set to be heard by the US Supreme Court this March. The cases could potentially set precedent for drawing fair congressional maps as early as next year.
Join us Friday February 15, 2019 at 7 pm (and again Feb 17 at 2 pm and Feb 18 at 5pm) for a special edition of Politically Speaking on Redistricting and Gerrymandering.