On Congress: How should congressional districts be drawn?
October 22, 2015
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Every 10 years, states are tasked with one of the most influential aspects of their powers, deciding the geographic boundaries of congressional districts. Districts are redrawn using U.S. Census data, but there is nearly always contention.
The U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the power to draw congressional districts. Article I, Section 2, states:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…”
The reason for redistricting is simple: To make sure political power is distributed fairly, congressional districts should have about the same number of constituents. Historically, states have kept to the letter of the law and let state legislatures draw the districts. But almost immediately, partisan politics came into play and districts were drawn to favor one party over another.
In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts approved the district lines that created oddly shaped districts, giving an advantage to his political party. One of them snaked across the state and was given the name “gerrymander,” a combination of Gerry and salamander, which the district resembled.
The term “gerrymander” stuck, and so has the practice. State and federal courts have thrown out recent maps drawn by legislatures because they favored one party. By creatively drawing lines, a majority party can dilute a minority party’s dominance in a particular district. This is possible by splitting off areas that tend to vote for the minority party and placing them in districts where they would be in the voting minority. Another method is packing the areas where a minority party dominates in two districts into one district, and then carving up the remainders into districts where it would have fewer voters.
From above, the work of gerrymandering can be pretty obvious. Some of the gerrymandered districts have been described as a praying mantis, a snake, or Goofy kicking Donald Duck. While the shapes may be strange, their impact on the governmental process can be huge. In the last election, one party received 50.6 percent of the vote for U.S. House representatives, but took only 46.2 percent of the seats. This means that one party received less than half of the support of voters in races for the U.S. House, but has over half of the seats in the House.
Because of this, some states have come up with methods to remove partisanism from the process. In 13 states, bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commissions determine the boundaries for districts.
Iowa uses a computer model to draw districts every year, and in doing so, has created four congressional districts that appear logical.
Some say that doing away with legislatures drawing congressional districts creates the possibility of disenfranchisement of minority voters. Nonpartisan committees may fail to recognize geographic or racial boundaries that have evolved, and oddly shaped districts may appear to favor one party but are actually enfranchising a population that had been historically neglected.
This can be seen in Florida’s 5th District, which was at the heart of a Florida Supreme Court case that struck down the recently drawn lines as unconstitutional. African American residents in the 5th District could lose their majority. Rep. Corrine Brown, who represents the district, wrote after the ruling: “The decision by the Florida Supreme Court is seriously flawed and entirely fails to take into consideration the rights of minority voters.”
Drawing districts isn’t an easy task. If you’d like to take a crack at drawing districts, check out the Redistricting Game by the USC Annenberg Center.
What do you think?
How should congressional districts be drawn? Who should be responsible for drawing the districts? How should districts be drawn to effectively represent a state’s population but also to respect the existing cultural and geographic barriers? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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