The Gerrymander. The most evil of political beasts, destroying competition in the electoral sphere and laying eggs of partisanship to perpetuate itself.
To get the full effect, you need to read that in the voice of Sir David Attenborough. Because when it comes to redistricting and representation, the entire concept is treated as some strange, otherworldly process that requires narration.
In reality, it is merely a byproduct of a political system based on representative districts. You can find it in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. That does not make it right, but it should not be unexpected.
The term “gerrymander” stems from Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signing a bill apportioning congressional districts in 1812, with one district snaking — or salamander-ing — around other districts to give his majority-party an electoral leg up. In the intervening 200-plus years, it has continued to be a tool of elected officials; some with partisan objectives, others with noble intentions.
For example, in the early 1990s, Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and moderate Republican Gov. Jim Edgar worked to create a ragged, “earmuff” shaped district in Illinois’ Cook County. Why? It consolidated Latino voters into a bloc, ensuring the state’s fastest-growing community would have congressional representation.
Is that good or bad? Should identity politics dictate the makeup of Congress? Should partisan politics? What if identity and partisanship overlap, such as African-Americans voting for Democrats at a 90 percent rate?
When the question is put that way, most people would likely say “no.” Elections should be based on the qualifications of the candidates, not engineering of the electorate. But it begs the question: If we are going to have electoral districts, on what criteria should they be established? What should tie them together?
“Geography” is a commonly offered answer. Fair enough. However, in California following the 2001 redistricting, a 200-mile long Democratic “ribbon of shame” congressional district was created along the Pacific coast. The rationale offered at the time was to consolidate a “community of interest” — the coastal towns with a shared (Democratic) interest, versus the inland, more conservative areas now represented by Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Or go back a few years to Maine’s 2011 redistricting battle. Republicans offered a new map that created a relatively clean, east-west division of the state. York, Cumberland, Oxford, and Androscoggin counties — along with portions of Franklin — would have been in the new 1st District. It eliminated the historic gerrymander of Maine, with Kennebec County circling around Androscoggin County to remain aligned with the southern part of the state. Additionally, it left the difference in population between the two districts at one person — as close as you can get to a perfect split with an odd number.
Democrats fought tooth-and-nail against the plan. They offered an 11-person difference — close enough for government work — that maintained the shape of Maine’s then-current congressional districts. It also kept Chellie Pingree’s and Mike Michaud’s residences separate.
The final, compromise map was much closer to the Democrats’ plan. Brunswick is the linchpin connecting two separate pieces of the 1st District. Lewiston and Auburn stayed put in the 2nd District along with Bangor, while Augusta continued to share votes with Maine’s former capital, Portland.
Maine’s experience, along with California’s, show the challenge with trying to establish electoral areas based on geographic considerations. Should we try to focus on the most compact areas, based on square footage? Should we follow topography, keeping coastal communities separate from more rural, agriculturally-based towns? Or should we take the decisions of generations past as pseudo-holy writ, trying to maintain the shape of existing districts regardless of how silly they may look?
The Supreme Court will be taking up these questions. Former Sen. Olympia Snowe and former Gov. Jock McKernan recently joined a brief opposing gerrymanders. And, if a map is drawn solely for partisan purposes, striking it down is probably the right decision. But when we’re dealing with multiple competing interests, as we do every day in a pluralistic society, there is not a simple, clean mathematically-correct answer.
Which leaves us with gerrymanders. So, to truly kill them off, we’ll need a better solution. Got any ideas?