In the early 1800’s, a Massachusetts Governor by the name of Elbridge Gerry conceived a novel plan to increase his party’s share of that state’s legislative districts. He would simply redraw the map. By redrawing the boundaries of the districts in such a way as to more effectively distribute friendly voters as well as break up pockets of opposition, he enabled his party to constitute a majority of voters in more districts. The result was, for those days, an unusual looking map.
Upon viewing the new map, one observer commented that one of the more oddly shaped districts looked like a salamander and it was promptly dubbed “the gerrymander” in honor of its creator. Ever since, the term “gerrymandering” has come to describe the process of drawing election district maps for the purposes of partisan gain.
The process has continued from Gerry’s day, down through the years and with ever improving techniques and results. The advent of computers and the ability to overlay various demographic and electoral data over district maps have given the modern day mapmakers tools that Gerry could have only dreamed of.
One of the effects of the modern day, computer assisted gerrymander is to create extremely uncompetitive districts which essentially result in one party dominance in various artificially created geographic areas. What has come to be known as the “pack and crack” method of redistricting, (where the weaker party’s supporters are “packed” heavily into few districts and then “cracked” or split up among the remaining districts), results in uncompetitive races for both parties. In other words, each district becomes a “safe seat” for one party or the other.
Districts in many states have become uncompetitive to an incredible degree. In California for example, a state with forty-three percent Democrat registration and thirty-four percent GOP registration, the Democrats control sixty-two percent of all legislative districts. In the recent 2004 elections, out of the one hundred and fifty-three total state legislative and congressional seats on the ballot, not one changed hands. Good partisans may chalk this up to good campaigning, but when only three out of fifty-three congressional races are won by less than ten percent of the vote, one has to look elsewhere for answers. In short, look to the map.
As the history books will attest by way of the example of the former one-party, Democratic “solid-South”, “one-party” eventually equals “no party” in the sense that party labels soon mean very little. As soon as it becomes obvious that the only way to win in any given area is to wear a particular party label like some cheap lapel sticker, (to be removed at one’s convenience), then that party is soon confronted with an increasing number of converts and candidates with questionable loyalty to its ideals.
In the GOP, these new arrivals are referred to as RINOs, “Republican in name only”. Although I am unaware of a catchy acronym for the Democrat counterpart, I am fairly sure they occasionally suffer the same problem in some areas, (although less often as that party seems to be enjoying little growth as of late).
Naturally such a process produces those who are unhappy with the product, which in turn produces the inevitable result – lawsuits. For its part, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the process, though perhaps unpalatable and/or ill advised, is no less constitutional and within the rights of each state legislature.
Another byproduct of exaggerated gerrymandering is a budding movement to reform the redistricting process itself. Essentially, it involves placing the process in the hands of a non-partisan group of individuals who are charged with drafting a map while observing various rules, one of which is usually maintaining the integrity of various areas of community interest, (such as geographic areas, city or county boundaries or areas with historical and cultural connections).
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently pushing for a state-wide referendum on such a proposal that may be voted on this fall. Should the proposal pass and that state’s districts become more competitive, one result could be enhanced GOP prospects in statewide races, (as the current map tends to decrease Republican turnout). The aftershocks of that seismic change could vibrate all the way through the next Presidential election, potentially putting California closer to being “in play”.
At least seven states already use such a process and the results seem to be enhanced competition among the parties. As with most things, competition is a healthy thing, but the requirement should not be competitiveness for competitiveness’ sake, as this can lead to artificially creating competition by adjusting district lines – the exact opposite of gerrymandering.
One of the problems with non-partisan commissions is that they’re not always truly “non-partisan”. In many cases, the members are themselves appointed by partisans, and it’s safe to say that true non-partisans with enough political juice to get appointed to such a weighty post are about as rare as hen’s teeth. This can result in partisan maps being drawn up behind the cloak of feigned non-partisanship. Hardly an improvement.
The ideal solution would be one in which the legislatures set more sensible legal requirements for the process in their respective states, such as compactness and maintaining the areas of community interest mentioned above. But when they allow preconceived election outcomes to be the only rationale for district lines, the parties may be working against their own long term best interests. Until things change, expect more RINO sightings.