This Seat is Taken

This Seat is Taken

Care about the map, and maybe you will get an elected official that cares about you.

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Illustration of a monster created from gerrymandering shapes in England from 1812.

The Gerry-Mander by Elkanah Tisdale (1812)

When the U.S. was formed, Article I of our Constitution set forth how the legislative arm of government would be created and Section 2 established how many representatives each new state would have in the newly formed House of Representatives. The intent was for there to be 1 representative for every 30,000 residents in a given state which meant that the House would grow as the American population also grew. Every 10 years the U.S. Census Bureau (part of the Department of Commerce) would undertake a nationwide census and the number of representatives each state would have would be adjusted by new legislation enacted by Congress. 

However, with an eye towards having a manageable number in the House, Congress twice set the number of representatives at a total of 435. The first time was in 1911 and then in 1929, the Apportionment Act made this number permanent. This Act also set forth the procedure for an automatic reapportionment – the redrawing of district boundaries to account for population growth and reallocation of that state's representatives. This process is referred to as redistricting. Seems pretty straightforward, right? If only that were true. The problem lies with how those new maps are drawn and how the new boundaries are used to keep people of color from having equal access to representation and by extension, democracy itself. This manipulation of geographic boundaries is known as gerrymandering.

The term gerrymandering is named for a career politician, Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814). Gerry held many offices between 1772, when he was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and his death in 1814. He was a member of the Continental Congress, president of the US Treasury Board, and has the distinct honor of being one of the signers of the Constitution.  Additionally, he served as governor of Massachusetts. During his gubernatorial career, Gerry signed legislation that created a partisan district in the Boston area the shape of which was likened to a “mythological salamander.” The editor at the time, of the Boston Gazette, in speaking to a fellow editor commented on the shape as being similar to a salamander, at which point the other editor said “Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander!”

The simplest definition of gerrymandering is the political practice that dilutes the voting power of groups of individuals as a method of voter suppression.  More times than not, this process is used to lump the largest number of racial minorities into the least number of districts possible so that their vote is diluted. This is known as packing.  The flip side of this is known as cracking which is the purposeful division of a particular group of constituents across as many districts as possible which also dilutes the impact of their vote. Generally, the groups most affected by these practices are minorities who, as a result of hundreds of years of oppression, already face significant obstacles when it comes to voting. Taken together, these practices are known as racial gerrymandering and are a go-to move by the GOP in order to either remain in power or gain more seats in the House.

What also happens as a result of GOP gerrymandering efforts is that many Representatives no longer have to campaign or work for all of their constituents in order to win or retain their seats. They get on the ballot and the rest is, as they say, history. And, while Biden won the White House in 2020, his win was by no means a magic bullet. The party in control in many states, including those labeled as battleground states, have their hands on the levers of redistricting and many of those hands belong to the GOP. Given that tens of millions came out to vote at what was the height of the pandemic (at least at that time) to vote Biden into office, the GOP is doing its level best to change the district borders in such a way that they are the party that benefits. As we all know, the GOP will take whatever action necessary in order to win regardless of how many rules they break or lies they tell.

Take Florida, for instance. In addition to those already submitted to the Florida Legislature, which is tasked with redrawing the maps in the Sunshine State, Governor DeSantis has submitted his own map and threatened to veto anything less. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Report calls DeSantis’ proposed map the “most brutal gerrymander proposed by a [Florida] Republican yet.” When asked how far Florida Republicans are willing to go in order to secure this all-important state, the answer has been a resounding “all the way.”  DeSantis, who is vying for a 2024 run at the White House, is being hailed by the GOP nationwide for his efforts.

In Wisconsin, the state’s Supreme Court heard arguments in a suit brought by organizations such as Black Leaders Organizing Communities, Voces de la Frontera, and the League of Women Voters, on which of several competing maps should be approved. When the Court reviews these maps, they are not scrutinizing them for racial bias as that is not a requirement of their review. And, this works in the GOPs favor as the maps favored them to begin with (hello gerrymandering!). In an earlier ruling, the state Supreme Court stated that redrawn maps had to adhere as closely as they could to current boundaries, accounting for a changed population. A ruling is expected soon and may lock their anti-democratic maps in for another 10 years.

In North Carolina, the issue of maps is also being taken up by the state’s Supreme Court following a ruling at the state level that the GOP drawn maps will stand. The lower court rejected a claim by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, among others, of racial gerrymandering parroting the SCOTUS opinion from 2019 that states racial gerrymandering of a district is not grounds for its undoing and is beyond the reach of the federal courts.

Redistricting is boring and to some degree, overwhelming for the political novice. Of that, there is no doubt. But, it is an issue that we must be concerned with as whatever boundaries are drawn now will remain in place for the next 10 years. That is 5 elections  (3 midterms and 2 presidential) that will occur with districts that may end up being some of the most egregiously gerrymandered maps in our history.

Care about the map, and maybe you will get an official that cares about you.”--Jason Putorti

Every vote, no matter who it is cast by, should carry as much weight as the next person. Inequitable maps give greater weight to some votes while others have almost no weight at all. This is not democracy. And, setting aside for a moment, the narrow-mindedness and racism of the “founding fathers,” the state of politics in this country is surely not what they intended. The only way out of the mess that our country has become is to elect leaders who understand what true leadership looks like. And, we only elect leaders who share our values when every one of us votes. Every time. In every election. Period.

What Can We Do

The Fair Representation Act, introduced by Representative Beyer (D-VA-8), seeks to establish rank choice voting and independent redistricting commissions that are not beholden to a political party. You can find more information on the issue of rank choice voting at FairVote.org or NCSL. Write to your legislators and encourage them to support the Act so that our elections going forward may be a more just and fair endeavor.

Want to know more about other litigation that is taking place across the country over the issue of fair maps? Check out the work our friends at Democracy Docket are doing.

We can also lobby our legislators to keep fighting for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act both of which will go a very long way in protecting our voting rights.

Join Resistbot Live at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, on Sunday, January 23, 2022, as we learn more about redistricting with the folks at Diversity Matters.

Special thanks to Chris E.

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