Reformers and do-gooders have a long (mostly) honorable history in America. Sometimes they get it right, like abolishing imprisonment for debt or the antislavery movements. Other times, like prohibition and school busing, they fall a little short.
But that drive to organize in order to make things better is a uniquely American trait. Alexis de Tocqueville was absolutely astonished at the impulse of Americans to organize themselves to reform the world around them and make better their lives.
The problem is that sometimes, change may be well-meaning, but fantastically misguided. Such is the case with efforts to end the good old-fashioned American tradition of gerrymandering the lines that determine congressional districts.
Gerrymandering is a practice older than the republic, predating the formalization of political parties. As long as determining where political boundaries were located was a democratic exercise, one group of self-interested men would vie with others to make sure that their supporters were grouped in such a way as to determine a decisive outcome for their side.
What was once a process that depended on the encyclopedic knowledge of local political trends by a few people has become an extraordinarily sophisticated technical miracle. Specialized programs wring every last drop of information from the census data to determine where their party’s supporters are.
Other programs identify their supporters by race, income level, favorite TV shows, and other esoteric considerations like what flavor of ice cream they prefer. When they’re done, a profile of their supporters emerges in detail. They overlay that profile with the census data and can determine down to the city block where lines can be drawn for optimum effect.
Is it cheating or good politics? Most Americans have been sold on the idea that no one party should have the power to draw the lines when the census is published every ten years. Thus was born the nonpartisan election commission tasked with redrawing congressional district lines “fairly” and without any one party’s “thumb on the scale.”
To no one’s surprise, it’s not quite working out the way the reformers envisioned.
In New York, Ohio and Virginia, commissions meeting for the first time this year have splintered into partisan camps to craft competing redistricting maps based on 2020 census data. The divisions have disappointed some activists who supported the reforms and highlighted how difficult it can be to purge politics from the once-a-decade process of realigning boundaries for U.S. House and state legislative seats.
As a result, the new state House and Senate districts in Republican-led Ohio will still favor the GOP. Democrats who control New York could still draw maps as they wish. And a potential stalemate in Virginia could eventually kick the process to the courts.
“It’s probably predictable that this is sort of how it’s panned out,” said Alex Keena, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Given the partisan warfare at this time, it was not only predictable but inevitable. Even redistricting commissions made up solely of interested citizens must have their maps approved by partisan state legislatures. And that leads to trouble in some states.
If New York’s Democratic-led Legislature rejects the work of the new commission (consisting for four Democrats, four Republicans and two independents), then lawmakers can draft and pass their own redistricting plans.
The prospects of that increased last week, when Democrats and Republicans on the commission failed to agree and instead released competing versions of new maps for the U.S. House, state Senate and state Assembly.
New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy accused the Democrats’ map of being “wildly gerrymandered” and accused the Democrats on the commission of refusing to compromise.
In fact, the map drawn by New York Democrats would virtually destroy the Republican Party in New York state. It would hand the Democrats 23 out of 26 districts and obliterate five GOP districts.
If Republicans aren’t complaining about commissions favoring Democrats, the Democrats are moaning about Republicans trying to dilute the minority vote. This whole process of drawing maps is, by definition, a partisan exercise. Colorado, whose districts were redrawn by a “nonpartisan” commission, just finished drawing a map that places firebrand right-wing GOP U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in the same district as liberal Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse. The district is decidedly Democratic and Boebert — as planned — doesn’t have a prayer.
There are ways to improve the process by not making gerrymandering so blatantly unfair. But that would take real negotiation and compromise — alien words to the politicians of today from both parties.