In ancient times, men looked up at the stars and saw warriors, bears, and flying horses. On a partly cloudy day, children look at the sky and imagine floating castles and dragons. In the grown-up world of political nerds, we have a different sort of visual treat for the imagination — congressional districts.
It is a feature of Democracy in the English-speaking world — including Canada, Britain, and Australia — that we usually elect our governments on a geographical basis, with one representative per district. In theory, this leads to greater accountability in government. When your congressman does something bad for your region, everyone knows whom to blame and he’s easy to target. He can also put distance between himself and his own party when it supports or adopts a bad policy.
Unfortunately, someone has to draw those legislative districts to match the population with each census, and that someone always has an unhealthy interest in the outcome. The result is that districts are drawn to elect particular candidates — in many cases, their shapes make little sense otherwise.
Whereas we have no idea why God set the stars in their orbit to look like Orion, we know exactly why Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey’s district resembles a soup ladle — it guarantees that he can pick up enough votes in Ithaca and Binghamton to win re-election despite being a twit. His district, as well as Republican Sherwood Boehlert’s neighboring “Bugs-Bunny-napping” district, was the invention of the state legislature as the two parties compromised to protect their incumbents. Using computer programs, they picked out the voters with the right party affiliation and drew the lines accordingly.
The “Snake” district represented by Mel Watt in North Carolina wins the award for most absurd, stretching as it does along I-85 from Charlotte to Winston-Salem in order to cover as many African-American areas as possible. It’s one thing to say that a congressman represents a community of common interests; it’s quite another to know that your “community of interest” is shaped like something you might find in a Kleenex after you blow your nose.
Before its newly Republican legislature decided to redistrict last year, Georgia had the nation’s most geometrically offensive gerrymander. Democrats had hoped to flip the state’s heavily Republican congressional delegation, and to that end they drew wiggly districts that shot out in all directions and meandered around one another, resembling the finger-painting of an emotionally disturbed kindergartener or an octopus with a few extra legs and heads. If you look at David Scott’s old 13th district with your head cocked to the left, it looks something like a guy kicking his dog in the throat. (Believe it or not, the only sensible-looking district in the state was that of Cynthia McKinney.)
In the end, the Georgia example is instructive. Democrats had drawn their map in order to combat the Republican trend in the state, but the trend ran them over anyway. Republicans took two of the three seats the Dems had created for themselves, proving that voters still have some say over the gerrymanderers when it comes to electing their congressmen.
Is there a solution for abolishing congressional districts that resemble the Loch Ness Monster, a rearing rhinoceros, a jet-ski, or a pair of deformed ovaries? Probably not. Some states, such as Iowa, Arizona, and Minnesota, already use “non-partisan” redistricting, employing a panel of retired judges to draw the lines, but there is something un-democratic about giving so much power to un-elected state bureaucrats over the composition of the U.S. Congress. That’s part of the reason why last year, in Ohio and California, voters soundly rejected referenda that would have taken away the power of redistricting from their states’ elected officials.
In Michigan, the legislature does the job, and they definitely draw the lines for political reasons — which the Supreme Court has said is okay. But they at least keep some sanity by requiring that counties be kept together whenever possible. In most states, gridlock in the state legislature prevents the most egregious abuses of redistricting. And if one party really does dominate your state — as in Florida, for example, or Massachusetts — they probably deserve to give themselves an advantage.
Of course, deliberately un-competitive districts result in a score of uncontested races every cycle and a sense of powerlessness among voters. But interestingly, despite all the computer gerrymandering, the composition of Congress after Election 2004 — 232 R to 203 D — is quite close to the 2004 national congressional vote, which Republicans won 50.1% to 47.5%. If seats were awarded strictly on the basis of those numbers, Democrats would gain just three seats.
Besides, gerrymandering is cool because it gives us political nerds something to laugh about. Where else in politics will you see a woman in a dress, carrying her baby, and having her brains sucked out by a giant, vicious floating blob? That’s the district that covers Hollywood, California, and I’d like to think that some clever gerrymanderer did it that way on purpose.
David Freddoso, a native of Indiana, is a political reporter for Evans and Novak Inside Report.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire