From the Left




Susan Estrich on

The most famous person from my hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts, is a former vice president of the United States by the name of Elbridge Gerry. Gerry is, fairly or unfairly, not remembered because of any major policies or programs or speeches or the like. His legacy is far more political than that.

His legacy is a salamander.

Drawing district lines is as old as representative democracy. Gerry's contribution was district lines that did not depend on natural geographic boundaries; they didn't depend on keeping cities together or neighborhoods together. There was only one explanation for a map that looked more like a fish than a community: maximizing partisan political strength.

Both parties do it. The goal is to make your voters count -- to not waste your votes creating supersafe districts for your own party; you do that to the other party.

This is what we do every 10 years. We count. How many Americans must be divided into the 435 congressional districts. Every district must be the same size. That's one man (later, one person), one vote.

But that doesn't mean every vote counts the same. It all depends on how you draw those district lines. A district that is 90% Democratic is a district in which almost half the Democratic votes will be "wasted," in the sense that they were not needed to elect a Democrat. Much better, if you are a line-drawing Democrat, to have two districts with just enough Democrats to win both.

District lines have traditionally been drawn by state legislatures that gerrymander so as to maximize the value of their votes and minimize the value of the other party's votes. It's politics, and while Gerry had to do it with pen and paper, these days sophisticated computer programs make it much easier, and both parties use them.

Which is why reformers have been arguing for decades that district lines should be drawn not by the politicians in the legislature but by "experts" who will take account of natural boundaries and draw district lines that leave both sides of the street, or the whole town, in the same district.

It sounds good. It just doesn't work as well as it should.


The experts are being bombarded by the politicians, including those who appointed them in the first place. And many experts, like the rest of us, have political views and preferences of their own. How do you separate those views from the job?

How do you take the politics out of politics?

You don't. The process is going on right now. Anecdotal accounts abound: In those states that are trying, that are using "independent" experts to draw the lines in the first instance, the same political infighting that complicates the process when done by legislatures is now complicating the process within these expert panels.

The Supreme Court has held that gerrymandering that is intended to minimize the value of racial minorities violates the Constitution. Moreover, the Voting Rights Act specifically proscribes such racial gerrymandering. But political gerrymandering is a different kettle of fish. While the Court has recognized that there could be cases where extreme partisanship could raise constitutional problems, it has yet to hold any state plan unconstitutional on this basis.

So we are, once again, off to the races. Redistricting panels are not the panacea many of us hoped for. We might have been naive in expecting that they could do politics without being political about it, but it is still better than a Congress full of districts that look like nothing so much as a school of fish.


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