States Struggling to Overcome Political Manipulation of Gerrymandering

In New York state, the late Rep.


In New York state, the late Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) once represented what was called the Earmuff District.

It took in a round part of Buffalo, a similarly shaped one in Rochester 60 miles away, and joined them with a narrow strip drawn along the Lake Ontario shore.

Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s (D-Ga.) district in Georgia was called the Sherman District because, like Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, it marched from Atlanta to the sea.

In Louisiana, former Rep. Cleo Fields (D-La.) represented the 4th Congressional District, called the Zorro District. Older folks may remember the television show “Zorro,” in which the masked hero left his trademark with his sword by slashing the letter Z.

The Zorro District looked like that.

In North Carolina, the I-85 District took in parts of numerous cities—Charlotte, Gastonia, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, and High Point—by joining them with stretches of I-85 and I-77. The district at points was no wider than the highways themselves.

These are some of the more notorious recent examples of gerrymandering, the practice by which those in charge of creating new congressional and legislative maps draw the lines unfairly.

They may do it to suit their own parties, protect incumbents, or otherwise pursue objectives at odds with the goal of grouping together people in compact geographical areas with interests in common.

The charge reliably comes up when maps—and representation in Congress—need to be adjusted following the U.S. Census. The process often winds up in court, as it did this cycle in states such as New York and North Carolina.

Is there any way to remedy this? Can states develop fair processes that can’t be manipulated by politicians?

“It’s unlikely unless you change human nature and how humans relate to power, acquiring and holding on to it,” said Carl Calabrese, a retired Buffalo-area political consultant, professor, and elected official. “You’re not going to get rid of that.”

It may not be quite that bad. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute named for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, noted that some states are succeeding in making the process fairer with various types of independent commissions.

How people define gerrymandering can vary.

The phrase stems from the early days of the republic.

Elbridge Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, a Founding Father—he initially refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t contain a Bill of Rights—and later vice president under President James Madison.

As governor of Massachusetts, he signed a redistricting map into law in 1812—one he reportedly disliked as highly partisan—including a state Senate district in Essex County shaped, some thought, like a salamander.

A political cartoon made that point and coined it “the Gerrymander,” and the phrase stuck.

Gerrymandering can mean unusually shaped districts such as that one.

It can also refer to an excessive effort expended protecting the state’s dominant political party. It might mean varying the population of districts—in most cases illegal now for federal redistricting—just enough for the party in power to squeeze an extra seat or two out of the process.

And it can just mean taking pains to make sure a congressional pal doesn’t lose his seat or pitting two veterans of the opposing party against each other to guarantee getting rid of one of them.

One reason that gerrymandering will never go away entirely is this: Complying with the Voting Rights Act more or less requires it. Under the act, states must create majority-minority districts, guaranteeing minority representation in Congress.

That often forces states to draw oddly shaped districts that join, say, black populations in two different cities to make a district with a majority black population. The Zorro, I-85, and Sherman districts were all the results of states complying with federal law.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, described how the Sherman District came to march through Georgia.

At the time of the 1990 census, the state already had one majority-black district, one in Atlanta represented by John Lewis. Georgia gained a congressional seat in 1992 and would now have 11. State leaders knew they now needed a second majority-black district. They drew it on Atlanta’s east side, stretching 85 miles south to Macon.

The federal Department of Justice said this wasn’t enough: Georgia needed three majority-minority districts.

The state created another one by taking the southwestern state’s district, which included Columbus and Albany, and adding Macon to the East. That district, the 2nd Congressional District, elected Sanford Bishop to Congress in 1992. The veteran Democrat is still there, running for reelection to a 16th term.

However, that meant that the second Atlanta district now needed more black residents found somewhere to replace those in Macon who had been assigned instead to the 2nd Congressional District. They found them in Savannah, Georgia, 250 miles from Atlanta.

Doing this can be tricky. The connecting areas, passing through sparsely populated areas, can’t pick up too many white voters, or it will work against the desired minority population arithmetic. Taking that principle to an extreme is what created North Carolina’s I-85 district, according to Bullock.

“If the connecting areas are only as wide as the interstate, you might pick up a homeless person living under a bridge, but that’s it,” he said.

The districts that have been drawn since 1992 represent an unusual deal between Republicans and African American Democrats, Bullock said. He has consulted in redistricting litigation in a dozen states, including in Florida in the 1990s over Rep. Corinne Brown’s (D-Fla.) “Fishhook District,” which took in black neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando, Ocala, and Lake City.

Republicans had the opportunity to move minority Democrats out of several districts and concentrate them into one while making the other districts more reliably Republican. This lessened the influence of white Democrats.

“It was a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’” Bullock said.

Democrats call this tactic “packing and cracking”: packing a lot of Democrats into a few districts, then cracking up the rest into smaller clusters spread around predominantly Republican districts.

At its root, gerrymandering is about parties seeking to retain or expand their power.

Michael Li of the Brennan Center, writing in September, gave high marks for fairness to redistricting commissions in California, Arizona, and Colorado; noted the struggles of New York, Virginia, and Utah; and singled out Ohio for criticism.

He reserved his highest praise for Michigan. It went from one of the “most aggressively gerrymandered states” in 2011 to “one of the fairest this time around,” Li wrote.

“Among states with new reforms, there is no brighter star than Michigan. Reforms overwhelmingly approved by Michiganders in a 2018 ballot initiative took map-drawing power out of the hands of the state legislature and gave it to a 13-person independent commission that included independents and third-party members as well as Democrats and Republicans,” he wrote.

“To promote independence, members of the commission are barred from being current or former elected officials or from having close ties to elected officials or to partisan politics. Members are also prohibited from immediately running for office. … Michigan reforms also changed the process for passing a map. Before reforms, when the legislature drew districts, maps could be approved on a party-line basis, giving the majority party the ability to steamroll opponents and little incentive to compromise.

“By contrast, the new commission’s rules require that a map win support from at least some Democratic, Republican, and independent or third-party members in order to become law.

“Reforms produced a sea change in Michigan. The state’s 2011 maps, drawn by Republicans, were some of the most aggressively gerrymandered in the country. By contrast, this decade’s commission-drawn map is among the country’s most politically balanced, and it easily survived legal challenges [although some minority groups say tweaks still might have to be made to some districts to ensure the fair treatment of communities of color].”

Politicos concur that New York Democrats “got greedy”—several of them who discussed this with The Epoch Times used the term—in drawing the new maps for this round.

State voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2014 that created the Independent Redistricting Commission. Its structure made for a body with four Republicans and four Democrats appointed by the legislative majority and minority leaders, as well as two independents selected by those eight.

The commission had no tiebreaker. The respective parties on it each submitted their own maps to the legislature on Jan. 3. With Democrats controlling both houses, they threw out the commission’s competing maps and created their own.

The legislature-drawn map would have limited the Republicans to four out of 26 congressional seats, as New York, in the census reapportionment, lost a seat from its previous 27.

In a drama fought out in courtrooms and the legislature during the winter and spring, a state judge overturned that map, his decision affirmed by the state’s high court. Also rejected in the process was the new state Senate map.

The judge, Patrick McAllister, ordered the legislature to pass new maps with bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans in both houses. When it didn’t comply, he appointed a special master to draw a new map, which he approved on May 20, barely a month before the state’s scheduled June 23 primary.

The congressional and state Senate primaries were postponed until late August to give candidates time to adjust.

Gerald Benjamin, a retired political science professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, noted the irony that a process in a state with both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion controlled by the Democrats, in a decision reaching the state Court of Appeals with all seven of its justices appointed by Democrats, wound up giving the Republicans meaningful shots at eight seats in Congress, up from four.

“Pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered,” Calabrese said.

However, even states with independent commissions can see their work attacked in court, become deadlocked if they don’t have a tie-breaking mechanism, or see their politically independent members accused of bias.

Also, the standards that courts use to judge whether redistricting is fair have changed over time, and judges themselves are often political appointees, according to Shawn Donahue, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo.

Some previous federal rulings limiting gerrymandering may be thrown out by the Supreme Court in cases now before it if the court decides that state legislatures are ultimately supreme in the matter of redistricting.

“You could let a computer generate 100 maps that all met the criteria of equal population, being compact, geographically connected, treatment of minorities, and the like,” Bullock said. “And then you could throw a dart, and whichever one it hits, go with that. That would take the politics out of it.”

Source: The Epoch Times #gm247news #news #n

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