Gerrymandering Revisited

3/13/20

Today’s hyperbole suggests that our country has never been more divided.  And, as Congress engages in partisan battles as it develops a coronavirus and economic stimulus package, it seems unimaginable that partisanship could be removed from drawing congressional districts. But maybe it’s time to try.

Keep in mind, not even the founding fathers were all best friends.  In 1788, former Virginia Governor Patrick Henry wanted to stick it to Federalist James Madison so badly he had his supporters draw congressional lines that threw Madison and Anti-Federalist James Monroe in the same district.

This was the first congress and they were already going at it.  In the match between the two future presidents, Madison triumphed.  But the time-honored tradition of drawing congressional districts to benefit your side was instigated by the author of “give me liberty or give me death.”

Gerrymandering isn’t new.  The term was coined in 1812 – long after the Madison vs Monroe show down.  Drawing Congressional districts to favor one party is as old as the republic.  We sure have gotten good at it.  With micro data, computers, mapping systems, states routinely draw most of their districts so they are not competitive – one side is supposed to win.

In 2018, 345 Members of the House received 60% of the vote or more.  The average margin of victory was 30% meaning the winning candidate received about 65% of the vote.

If a congressional district is drawn to include an overwhelming number of one party, there’s very little reason for its officials to find middle ground or work with the other side.

What if partisans didn’t draw the lines?  What if lines were drawn based on geography or community?

Virginia is thinking about doing that with an amendment designed to take the redistricting process away from the General Assembly.  The amendment would create a commission of eight legislators and eight citizens.  The membership will be selected by retired judges from lists provided by both parties in both chambers and the General Assembly.  The maps would require the votes of six legislators and six citizens to pass.  The General Assembly gets a final up-or-down vote but cannot amend the commission-approved proposal.  The amendment passed this weekend and will advance to the people on the 2020 ballot. 

I’d like it if state legislatures could draw fairer, balanced, and dare I say, more moderate districts.  I’d like it if many elected officials would just do their jobs.  But from Virginia, to Pennsylvania, to North Carolina they have proven they can’t.

What if more congressional districts were purple?  Well, elections themselves would be nastier if more seats were won with 51%.  But maybe governing would be less partisan.  Compromise might not be a bad word anymore.  Candidates and elected officials would have to appeal to folks in the middle, not the far ends of the spectrum. 

Stay tuned and let’s see what the commonwealth of Virginia does in November.