|« Not Without Tears||On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin! »|
Elbridge Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, but he refused to sign the Constitution because there was no Bill of Rights. He was our fifth vice president, but nationally he?s most remembered for his partisan act of drawing a congressional district in Massachusetts. He put most of the Federalists into a single district and kept the rest for his own Democratic-Republican party.
Today, we call the redrawing of district lines to give unfair advantage gerrymandering.
Both major parties have engaged in it, usually to protect incumbent office holders. In many states today, officeholders pick their own constituents rather than the other way around.
(This is going to get a little wonky, but I hope you?ll hang in, because it has matters hugely in upcoming elections.)
The Constitution provides for congressional (and state legislative) districts to be redrawn after every U.S. Census, but it leaves up to the states how to handle this. That explains why Republicans were extra gleeful last fall after they swept the mid-term elections. The 2010 Census showed that eight states gained in population and 10 lost. Districts in all 18 will have to be redrawn, and we?ll all have to deal with the results for the next decade.
Some states have independent commissions designed to ensure that no party gets the upper hand. Even these may be biased against smaller parties trying to get a toehold or candidates outside the political establishment, but they?re more likely to be equitable than a partisan legislature or a system like Arkansas?s where the map is drawn by the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General.
Since New York, where I vote, has lost another seat (we?re down six seats from the 34 we had in 1990), there?s a growing concern that Republicans in the legislature will redraw the districts to take even more of them than their numbers warrant. Former NYC mayor Ed Koch got a group of candidates to agree to establish a nonpartisan commission before the election, but now that Republicans have the majority in the state senate, they?ve changed their minds.
That?s why I was standing in front of the Nassau County offices of State Senator Jack Martins a couple of cold Saturdays ago with a group organized by the New Roosevelt Initiative, ACT NOW and Democratic party representatives to remind him of his promise. (He called it a ?temper tantrum,? but I guess he heard us.) In May, we?ll stage a little action in Westchester for another promisebreaker, State Senator Greg Ball.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University law school, whose website (www.brennancenter.org) was my source for a cram course in redistricting, there are three kinds of gerrymandering: cracking, packing and tacking (sorry, no fracking). Cracking means to split up an existing district so that the influence of a party or group is fragmented. Packing means to crowd voters into a district so that previous leader loses weight. Tacking means to reach out and grab a desired area to augment a district to someone?s advantage. Take a look at any state?s political map, and the shapes will leave you incredulous.
Historically, redistricting has been particularly detrimental to minority groups, usually by ?cracking? districts in such a way to make sure they lacked the critical mass to elect anyone. That?s why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put redistricting in some states (and parts of others) under court supervision. Since then, the number of African American elected officials has increased to 9,000 nationwide, the number of elected Latinos to 5,000, and Asian Pacific Americans and Native Americans have gained in significant numbers as well. States under the VRA are lobbying to get out of the box, but it?s mostly in place.
Other forms of gerrymandering are more subtle. For example, more voters are crammed usually into urban districts than those in rural areas, thereby enhancing the power of voters in sparsely populated areas. For years, prisoners counted as residents of the areas where they were incarcerated but couldn?t vote rather than where they lived when arrested. That was reversed by courts in New York, but Republicans are suing to have that overturned.
Perhaps one of the reasons this issue plagues us is that it?s arcane and difficult to address, but filmmaker Jeff Reichert actually found a way to make it entertaining. ACT NOW is screening his documentary, ?Gerrymandering, the Movie,? at The Tank, 354 W. 45th Street, at 2:30 on Saturday, April 23. There?s no charge for admission, and it might give you some ideas about how you can help ensure that new districts are equitably drawn. (You can sign up at www.actnowny.org) The movie is also available on DVD.
And if you live in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and, yes, Massachusetts, it might be a good idea to find out who?s going to draw those lines and how you might influence the process.
Let's make sure every vote counts...equally.