Slaying the Gerrymander
[This essay is only indirectly related to drug law reform. But over the past decade I have become convinced that this topic is the most critical and crucial political problem our nation faces. That fact alone is sufficient reason to address it here, but it also highlights one of the most intransigent obstacles to improving drug law.]
In 1800 the states carried out their constitutional duty to reapportion their congressional districts to conform to the decennial census. As governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry was in control of his state’s redistricting. (Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a dissenting delegate to the Constitutional Convention, congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and Vice-president.) One of the resulting districts, one that Gerry intended to represent when he stepped down as governor, meandered its way through the middle of the state from the far northern border to the southern one (at that time, Massachusetts still included the territory that would be split off to form Maine). An editorial cartoonist for a Boston paper thought the map of the district looked like the silhouette of a salamander and in his cartoon labeled it the “Gerrymander”. The name – and the problem – is still with the country.
The redistricting provision is one of the few mistakes the Founders made. They did not foresee the rise of political parties and their influence on the process. Consequently no checks or limits are placed on a state’s redistricting powers. Gerry and his contemporaries in other states quickly realized the meaning of this lack of oversight and leveraged their parties’ majority status in the legislatures into advantages in future elections by creating either districts in which they had overwhelming majorities or districts in which their opponents’ majorities were diluted.
As time passed, those leveraged majorities were increased until districts were either irredeemably Republican or Democratic. Today, only a minority of congressional districts are even considered contestable. Today career politicians have life-time jobs and elections are merely ceremonies in which politicians select their voters.
A look at any state’s districting map will show the distorting effect of gerrymandering. Texas can serve as an example, simply because I am most familiar with it. One ghetto-ized Democratic district in Houston looks like the letter “Q” with a slice out of one side. Another district is a dog-bone over 150 miles long, with urban Democratic blobs in Austin and Houston outweighed by a rural Republican shank connecting them. Even at the county level, one Harris County precinct is made of two non-contiguous areas. The original Gerrymander looks almost rational in comparison.
The time has come to slay the gerrymander. Just as war is too important to leave to the generals, voting is too important to be left to the politicians. Redistricting can, and must, be removed from political control. California has shown the way by instituting a non-partisan redistricting commission operating outside of legislative control.
But California neglected an opportunity to provide guidelines and limits on its new commission. Both modern computer and data technologies and advances in mathematical theory have provided tools that Gerry with his hand-drawn maps and pen-and-ink could not have imagined. (NERD WARNING: the next few sentences will wade into the depths of wonkdom.) First, computers now allow census data to be collected and easily manipulated down to the level of a city block. Billions of trial groupings can now be examined in a few seconds. Second, topology, a branch of mathematics, has developed a set of mapping theories that provide methods for dividing a populated surface (like a state with people strewn irregularly across it) in accordance with set criteria. This capability means that if one can define a fair division of voters into districts, these methods will provide a verifiable means of defining those districts.
The criteria for fair redistricting under these standards are straightforward:
· All districts must be within 0.5 per cent of the same population. This criterion is about the same as that applied today. The exact size of the variation could be changed.
· All districts must comply with federal election laws. This provision would apply only if the redistricting is by state law.
· The combined length of the district borders must be the least practicable. This criterion is critical and is the result of applying mathematical mapping theorems. The most efficient division of a surface is that with the minimum border lengths. If the population across the state were evenly distributed, then the efficient map would look like a honeycomb, paved with hexagons.
Three optional requirements would be useful:
· To the extent practical, districting should follow boundaries of political subdivisions, beginning with the most local (precinct, ward, etc.) and then progressing through larger ones in order.
· In each successive redistricting, at least 10 per cent of a district’s border line must change.
· The redistricting commission must prepare three maps satisfying these criteria and the legislature must choose one of those three.
The real problem with redistricting reform is finding a path to get there. Two paths are possible, but both are very steep, if not impossible.
One approach is through state action, moving one state at a time following the lead of California. However, for most states this path leads through the legislature and that legislature is probably dominated by career politicians who have a vested interest in preserving their safe districts. The other states can use initiative or referendum procedures to by-pass the legislature and impose popular will. If enough of these states reform, they may create pressure on the others to conform.
The other path is federal and it has two branches. The first is by constitutional amendment and the second may be through congressional action. Either is unlikely.
The constitution provides only two methods for amendment: an amendment may be initiated either by a two-thirds vote of each house of congress or by action by the legislatures of three-quarters. No action by popular initiative is possible. Neither of these methods seems likely for the reasons discussed above.
Congress may have the authority to tackle gerrymandering directly. The Constitution gives congress the power to insure a republican form of government in every state, the Fourteenth Amendment extends equal protection to all citizens, and the Fifteenth charges congress with protection of the right to vote for black Americans. When read together, these three provisions support a strong argument that congress must supervise the redistricting process to ensure equal – and equally effective – access to the ballot box.
Gerrymandered districting makes a farce of elective government; and serious in any area means reclaiming the right to a strong ballot that is weighed equally. Now is the time to get together and slay the Gerrymander.