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Redistricting Proved To Be Much Ado About Not Very Much

Michael Barone on

The congressional redistricting wars are mostly over. Much of the hoopla surrounding it is proving overheated.

Before looking at this cycle's results, a primer on the subject is in order.

The first and most important point is that the requirement that districts have equal populations seriously limits the effects of partisan redistricting. That requirement seems to have been on the minds of the framers of the Constitution.

The framers mandated a federal census to be conducted every 10 years to determine the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives based on population. Ours was, I believe, the first regularly scheduled national census in history, and it was among the first to link representation to population.

The argument that the framers favored districts with equal populations is strengthened by the fact that the number of seats they allocated the states in 1787 for the first Congress tracks pretty closely the numbers resulting from the results of the first census in 1790.

In 1842, Congress specifically required the states to create districts with equal populations. That provision was dropped in 1929, when Congress adopted an automatic formula for reapportionment after each census. But in 1964, the Supreme Court imposed a "one-person, one-vote" standard on both congressional and state legislative districts -- a result that I think the framers would have found congenial.

 

But the equal populations leave some limited room for political manipulation. To see why, imagine a square-shaped state entitled to two districts, whose northern half votes 55% Republican and whose southern half votes 65% Democratic. If you divide the districts by a north-south line, you've got two 55% Democratic districts. An east-west line gives you one Republican and one Democratic district. Which plan is fairer? It sort of depends on which party you favor, doesn't it?

What happens if opinion shifts 10 points away from the Democrats, as has happened frequently and may have happened since November 2020? Then the north-south line produces two Republican districts, but the east-west line still produces one district for each side.

Which plan is fairer? You can make arguments either way.

The situation in states with multiple districts is not so simple, except maybe in New Hampshire, which has not changed the boundaries of its two districts much since 1881 but may this time, but the principle is the same. One corollary is that there is no truly nonpartisan way to draw district lines. A redistricter with no knowledge of partisan patterns -- and no one interested enough in the issue lacks all such knowledge -- will draw lines that will favor one party more than the other and one party's factions more than their rivals.

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