John Colson: A political lizard’s legacy — gerrymandering in the U.S.
July 18, 2017
As much as I'd like to, as much as I feel a need to add my voice to a growing chorus of critics, I cannot stomach the idea of writing about the latest outrages and antics involving our current president, "He Who Shall Not Be Named."
Instead, I'll return to a theme that I believe is a big part of why we are in our current political mess — the unethical (it should really be illegal) process known as "gerrymandering," about which I have written previously.
Just to be clear from the outset, gerrymandering is a convoluted process that is based on the federally mandated "redistricting" procedure, which takes place following our national census every 10 years. Based on census-generated population data, the dominant party in every state gets to redraw political district boundaries with the stated goal that the districts each represent about the same proportion of voters as any other district in the state.
The basic theory is that this prevents more populous areas — such as cities — from taking control of state government to the detriment of less populous areas — such as the rural counties and small towns.
As theories go, it wasn't a bad one when it was established back in the 1700s.
But the practice, enshrined in our federal and state constitutions, soon fell victim to party politics.
It reportedly all started in Massachusetts in 1812 when then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan that favored his party (the Democratic Republicans). One of the contorted new districts resembled the lizard known as a salamander, and political wags of the time came up with the nickname, gerrymander.
The partisan nature of the procedure took root and has been a recognized problem for more than two centuries, though nobody seemed to care enough, or view the practice as evil enough, to do anything about it.
Over the past 60 to 70 years, though, the practice of gerrymandering, in concert with the increasingly divisive nature of party politics, has morphed into a truly nasty partisan weapon that can effectively give one political party complete dominance in state government, as well as giving that party a decided edge in national elections.
How does it work?
Glad you asked.
The practice of gerrymandering has been described as involving two basic functions — "cracking" and "packing."
In the first place, the incumbent party can "crack" legislative-district lines to spread out the opposing party's voters over different districts, putting them in the minority in most of those districts.
They also can "pack" the opposing party's voters into certain districts, meaning the opposition party will win in overwhelming numbers in those particular districts, while losing everywhere else.
As I said, it's a nasty business.
And both major parties in the U.S. have long been guilty of using it to their own partisan advantage in many states, although the Democrats have never used it to the same degree as Republicans, perhaps because though the Republicans have refined it into a science in the past half-century or so.
The reasons Republicans have gotten so much better at it are multifold.
For one thing, they have long been in the minority, nationally speaking.
A June Gallup poll asked respondents which party they saw themselves in, and found that 30 percent of U.S. respondents saw themselves as Democrats, 26 percent said they are Republicans, and 42 percent claimed to be Independents.
According to Gallup's tracking of responses to this question going back to 2004, that ratio essentially has held constant over that period, with occasional flip-flops between the Dems and the Repubs.
So Republicans have for some time felt like the ignored little brother in national politics, which might go far to explain why they're so pissed off at everything all the time and are willing to swing a political hammer in all directions any time they can — like, now.
According to a story I recently read, the politics of Texas are a prime example of gerrymandering gone haywire, and have been since disgraced former Texas pol Tom DeLay gerrymandered the hell out of the state in 2003.
In the city of Austin, for instance, which basically is an island of liberality in a deeply reactionary sea, of the five congressional districts that dip into Travis County (where Austin sits) only one is held by a Democrat.
The rest, all held by Republicans, are actually rooted in counties well removed from Austin and Travis County, but are drawn to reach long distances and take in plenty of rural Republicans in order to overbalance the Democrats.
Interestingly, federal judges recently have found that the Texas brand of gerrymandering is unconstitutional, in that it is racially motivated rather than being strictly based on politics, just as other gerrymandering plans have been struck down in other states.
And now the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case involving gerrymandering in Wisconsin, the state where I grew up, and the state that essentially hammered the final nails into the coffin of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid last year.
The Supremes, notably, will hear the case strictly on political grounds, not racial bias, which means it may well be the thread that, when plucked, unravels the blanket of political gerrymandering all over the country.
Should be an interesting case.
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