Friday, November 10, 2006

Gerrymandering Only Good When Your Party Is The One In Power!

Several background news stories coming on the heals of the 2006 midterms point out the significant gains in the number of seats won by democrats within different state governments across the country. The stories point to the advantage that these new gains play in future redistricting of congressional and legislative districts, within a particular state, and how it could work as an advantage for the party at the state level in future elections. The premise, of many of these reports being, that democrats would redistrict or “gerrymander” to strengthen the likelihood of a congressional or legislative district containing more voters favorable to democrat ideas and candidates and reducing the likelihood of the voters, within the new districts, voting for a republican or independent.

I believe the average voter often misunderstands or knows little about gerrymandering. That’s if they are aware of it at all when they go to cast their vote for congress or their state legislature. Redistricting is always a back-story when it comes time to vote. Even though it plays a significant role in whom the voter get to vote for, and I think, in a more roundabout way ultimately, the voter’s apathy and the general turnout of voters at the polls.

The term gerrymandering is defined as “drawing a electoral district’s lines in a manner that discriminates against a political party or particular group of citizens”. The term itself comes from Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts in 1812. He and the legislature divided the state into new voting districts in such a way that it heavily favored success at the ballot box for democrat and republican candidates over the federalist party candidates. One new district’s shape was so odd that it actually resembled a salamander. A political cartoon drawing of the day, showing the shape of the district. deemed it the “Gerrymander”. Radical redistricting by state lawmakers or “gerrymandering” has taken place throughout American history. The US constitution requires that congressional districts throughout the country be evenly proportioned, based on population. There are 435 seats presently with each state being granted at least one congressional seat. The remaining 385 seats are then divided amongst the states based on population trends. Thus some state will gain seats and other lose seats when reapportionment takes place and populations change or relocate within a state or from state to state. This is done every ten years after the US census is completed. The state’s politicians then determine how the congressional district’s boundaries are drawn up within their state. This is often where the fun really begins.

The power to redistrict your state to the advantage of your political party is one of the spoils of controlling the power within the statehouse and governor’s office of a state. This power comes with relatively few legal or political restrictions. But it can be definitive in determining who gets elected, lessening the power of a certain political party, and creating apathy and powerless feelings amongst groups of disenfranchised citizens subject to radical and unfair redistricting. Did radical gerrymandering cause apathy in Texas in the recent election?. The turnout in the state of Texas on November 7th was 33% of the total registered voters. The national average was approximately 40%, which was up slightly on a national basis from 2002 midterm turnout. Could low voter turnout in Texas be due to a voter disenchanted based on a feeling that his vote doesn’t mean anything in a radically gerrymandered district in which one may find them self located? I think that it’s a least plausible argument. Does Tom Delay really care if your feeling disenfranchised? Or does he and other republicans in Texas, like Carl Rove, care about winning elections at all cost even if it limits the rights of individual voters.

“here is a potential for a huge shift of power — in either direction. Currently, of the 36 state legislatures that control Congressional redistricting, 20 have at least one chamber within 4 seats of changing hands. These 20 states control 195 Congressional districts. A flip of about 50 state legislative seats in key chambers (out of over seven thousand seats nationally) could mean a gain or a loss of up to 15 Democratic Congressional seats in the next round of redistricting.” (statement on DLCC website prior to midterm)

Democrat gains in congress were also matched on the state level throughout the country. D’s now completely control 15 state houses, adding New Hampshire for the first time since 1874 and Colorado for the first time since 1960. Significant gains were made in the south, normally a republican bastion. Democrats now control more chambers than at any time since 1994. They gained new majorities in the: Iowa House and Senate, Indiana House, Michigan House, Minnesota House, Oregon House, and Wisconsin Senate. Republicans control 10 statehouses now, down from 12 held before the midterm election. The democrats also now control 28 governor seats up from 22. There are 24 statehouses that are divided and one (Nebraska) with is nonpartisan. Here in Washington State the democrats gained seats in both the State Senate and House and already held the governorship, which only strengthens their hold on power.

Normally states do redistricting every ten years using data compiled by the new US census. The next census is scheduled for 2010. Thus in most state legislatures, where the legislators do the redistricting themselves, the real important election, when it comes to redistricting, will actually be in 2008. Though the belief is that democrat gains now should mean that many of these newly elected state lawmakers will be incumbents who are traditionally more likely in the next go around to get reelected. But there are some drastic changes afoot brought about by Tom Delay in Texas and a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that tested Delay’s new radical gerrymandering.

This practice of redistricting every ten years was radically altered by the supreme court decision in June 2006 reviewing a Texas case where implementation of a Tom Delay led redistricting plan by republicans after they took control of the Texas statehouse in 2002. Tossing out the redistricting plan imposed by a federal court only a year earlier. This practice was challenged legally and eventually heard before the Supreme Court. In essence the court ruled that Texas and other states could redistrict at any time and were only restricted in how they did it to population numbers and a few basic rules to protect against racial discrimination when drawing up the new districts. The new Texas plan resulted in 6 new republican congressional seats in the 2004 elections. To quote the DLCC: “In terms of Congressional redistricting, the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Texas redistricting further elevates the importance of state legislatures. It could lead to state legislatures trying to redraw Congressional district maps at any time”.

“Let the redistricting festivities begin, This really signals that the federal judiciary will not step in even in the most extreme cases.” (Gerald Hebert Attorney for Texas democrats who argued before the Supreme Court)

Not all states do their redistricting using their legislature. Thirty-six states do. Seven states have quasi-independent commissions and 6 have only one congressional district, one has a independent Service bureau. In Washington State the redistricting commission system was instituted by a constitution amendment and vote of the people in 1983. The commission first opportunity to redistrict the state came in 1991 after the US census. According to Washington state law, the legislature has 30-days to amend the redistricting plan submitted by the Washington State Redistricting Commission. Amendments must be approved by two-thirds of the members in each house, and cannot include more than two percent of the population of any district. The creation of the commission apparently has eliminated the colorful history of party squabbling, unfairness and court fights over redistricting and gerrymandering that once were par for the course here.

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