Is This the Ugliest Redistricting Cycle Ever?

by Stuart Rothenberg November 11, 2011 · 9:21 AM EST

Redistricting is always messy and partisan. But this redistricting cycle, which won’t be finished until sometime next year, is particularly ugly and hypocritical.

In Arizona, the governor, with the support of two-thirds of the state Senate, removed the chairman of her state’s redistricting commission. In Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and Maryland, legislators put politics ahead of everything in drawing new district lines. In Texas, judges are forced to draw the state’s map. In Iowa and Arizona, “nonpartisan” mapmakers produced maps with significantly partisan implications. And in Florida, nobody knows how it will be possible to abide by both the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Districts initiative at the same time when creating the new Congressional districts.

The fight for the House of Representatives has become so important that redistricting has become the front line of the battle between Democrats and Republicans.

State legislators, cheered on by their home-state Members and party operatives and aided by microtargeting and computer software that empowers users to test various redistricting schemes, increasingly create partisan lines to help their party, no matter how it affects constituents and communities.

Of course, redistricting is in its essence a political act. There is no single “right” way to draw a state’s districts. The one universal requirement, said the U.S. Supreme Court, which never makes a mistake, is to minimize the population differences among a state’s districts.

Given that, it’s not surprising that incumbent legislators use a partisan lens (and sometimes self-interest) when drawing a new Congressional map.

Reformers always talk about compactness, and that is certainly a place to begin to create reasonably shaped districts that include communities of interest. But given the way a state’s population is distributed, the need in some states to draw majority-minority districts for African-Americans or Hispanics and requirements in some states to avoid or at least minimize the breaking of county lines, compactness is a relative concept.

Each side grabs the moral high ground on redistricting when it’s in its interests to do so, ignoring it when that is necessary to gain seats.

On Tuesday, for example, I received a press release from the Lone Star Project, which seeks to rebut arguments and analyses from Texas Republicans, whether in Washington, D.C., or in the state.

In reporting on a federal district court’s decision not to approve of the state Legislature’s Congressional redistricting plan, the group asserted, “Texas Republicans have pursued a cynical strategy to draw overly partisan maps by undermining the voting strength of Hispanic and African-American voters.”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that was the intent of Texas Republicans, Democrats drew a map in Illinois and proposed a map in Nevada that avoided creating new Hispanic districts in order to maximize the number of Democratic districts they could create. In other words, Democrats in Nevada and Illinois did exactly what Texas Democrats accuse Texas Republicans of doing.

Of course, when Republicans made their unsuccessful case in Illinois and Nevada for another Hispanic district, they didn’t do it for Hispanics but only because they believed that it would complicate Democrats’ prospects in other districts.

The incentive to draw Republican or Democratic districts is so strong that legislatures now create monstrosities, such as Illinois’ 4th district, North Carolina’s 4th district and Maryland’s 3rd district, none of which have any geographic rationale apart from partisanship. On paper, each of those districts looks like an April Fools’ Day joke, not a way to represent Americans.

Communities of interest are chopped up seemingly without any concern for what residents think or want. Democrats chopped up Montgomery County in Maryland solely to defeat a sitting Republican. Republicans in Utah did the same to Salt Lake County with the intention of defeating the state’s sole Democratic Member.

State legislators know that they won’t pay a price for partisanship. Voters don’t focus on process, especially when real issues are out there.

If you think that leads me to turn to nonpartisan commissions or the courts to draw lines, you are wrong.

I distrust the “nonpartisan” nature of commissions, and the idea that one smart person should be empowered to be the deciding vote on what map to choose or how to draw lines strikes me as nuts.

As for courts drawing maps, I have never seen why a judge should be given that responsibility or how he would use his legal training to do so.

In his 1962 dissent in Baker v. Carr Justice Felix Frankfurter argued that “courts are not fit instruments of decision where what essentially is at stake is the composition of those large contests of policy traditionally fought out in non-judicial forums.”

Only 16 years earlier, Frankfurter, writing not a dissent but delivering the court’s opinion in Colegrove v. Green, warned the courts “not to enter this political thicket.”

“Of course, no court can affirmatively re-map the Illinois districts so as to bring them more in conformity with the standards of fairness for a representative system.

“At best, we could only declare the existing system invalid. The result would be to leave Illinois undistricted,” he wrote, clearly failing to anticipate the role that courts now have in redistricting.