Gerrymandering has shaped American politics since February 11, 1812, when the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law to redistrict the state. A bill was proposed, and passed, by the majority Democratic Party over the vehement protests of the minority Federalists. In the following election, the Federalists garnered over 1,000 more votes than the Democrats, an outcome that resulted in sending 29 Democrats and 11 Federalists to the state senate.
Hence, the Democrats seized more than two thirds of the state senate but received fewer votes than the Federalists. In response to these events, The Boston Gazette, invented the term “gerrymander” after Elbridge Gerry, the Democratic governor, and the salamander, which the most convoluted district supposedly resembled. The politics of gerrymandering only grew in absurdity.
On May 4, 1890, the New York Times reported that Representative McComas of Maryland submitted a report to the House of Representatives from the Committee on the Election of President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress, his bill to prevent gerrymandering. This was during an intense period of partisan jockeying for political advantage. When reviewing McComas’s report, it is amusing to note the similarities with our contemporary politics. In one passage, McComas’s report reads,
“The effort to restrain the zeal of political faction by requiring that Representatives shall be elected by districts composed of continuous territory has not restrained the State from stifling the voice of the minority party in each State by ingenious gerrymandering. Often it is contrived that one voter of the majority party equals three voters of the minority party in electing a Representative in Congress. In Missouri, a compact State, the Fourteenth Congressional District is 240 miles long and for half its length only 35 miles wide. In Mississippi the Third District is 240 miles long, extending from the northern almost to the southern boundary of the State. The other districts intertwine in fantastic shapes. Louisiana also rivals Mississippi in this regard. The popular branch of the National Government has been too much controlled by State Legislatures scheming for politicaladvantages.”
Congressman McComas’s frustration notwithstanding, the Constitution clearly allocates the power of districting to state legislatures following a national census every ten years. Congressman Tom DeLay recently abused that power and exploited his influence with the Texas legislature to muscle through a redistricting plan prior to the 2010 census. DeLay’s scheme was a flagrant and illegal abuse of power designed to secure the Republican’s majority in the House. Democrats are hoping the Supreme Court will overrule DeLay’s Texas power grab and influence the November elections in their favor. Sadly, I suspect the Supreme Court will support DeLay’s power play.
Ohio is another example of Republican gerrymandering malfeasance in which Democratic voters are hideously marginalized. In California, it is the Democrats controlling the legislature of a large state and drawing the districting map to their unfair advantage.
Prior to the ’05 off year elections, I was solicited by progressive organizations to help Ohio Democrats support a proposition ending Republican gerrymandering and reverse their dominance of the Ohio congressional delegation. I was simultaneously solicited by liberal groups to help defeat Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposition to stop Democratic gerrymandering in that state. Thus I was being asked by liberal organizations to help end gerrymandering in one state but support it in another. Intellectually, I found their simultaneous requests incongruous.
The frustrated liberal partisan in me shouted, “this is war! The Republicans have taken this country over a cliff! They’re corporatists! And racists! And xenophobic nationalistic war mongers! And homophobes! Whatever it takes we have to stop them! Look at what Tom DeLay did in Texas? Look at what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. They have no principles and we can’t give these bastards any quarter!” In my heart and gut, that’s how I feel.
Upon reflection though, engaging the Republicans in gerrymandering combat is self-defeating. We need to fight fire with water not gasoline. Truthfully, Democrats contributed to this problem when the Congressional Black Caucus entered into an unholy alliance with the Christian Right in the early nineties. Minority representation was secured in districts throughout the country. The price was costly as Democrats surrendered “blue dog” representatives from the south that helped the party preserve their majority. In their place Republicans were able to elect hard-core Christian fundamentalists with little sympathy for minority issues.
This unholy alliance has eliminated districts on a wholesale level containing mixed populations. Regrettable, as a new generation of black and Hispanic leadership has come of age. Politicians such as Congressman Harold Ford and Senators Barrack Obama and Bob Menendez, are capable of competing for a diverse range of voters. The House of Representatives is no longer the people’s house, because very narrow constituencies elect individual congressmen and congresswomen.
Even worse, we have perhaps 100 less competitive seats than in 1994. That is not a field of play the Democrats can effectively compete in over the long haul. More importantly, the country is deprived of leadership that is compelled to be familiar with urban and rural, black, brown, and white. That only serves to reinforce racism and engender unresponsive leadership. Our vital center is no more.
I therefore propose the Democrats renounce gerrymandering everywhere. One benefit is that the party will achieve a public relations coup by appearing to serve the public more than their partisan interest. For too long the Democrats have suffered from a perception that they are the party of “special interests.” Renouncing gerrymandering in blue states and red will demonstrate that as far as Democrats are concerned, the people come first.
Another benefit is that Hispanic and black politicians will become more competitive in statewide races. I would like to see black and Hispanic women competing in statewide races for a change. Presently, minority representatives are only identified with narrow constituencies because of gerrymandering. The nation would also benefit if white representatives were compelled to moderate their positions to garner votes from minorities.
Obviously, the Democrats can’t unilaterally disarm. The Democrats should therefore assemble at a mid-term national convention and publicize a platform the party can rally around on a wide spectrum of issues. This platform should contain a protocol that Democrats will fairly apportion districts in the state legislatures they control if Republicans do the same. If the Republicans refuse, than Democrats will hold the moral high ground. In this instance, good policy is good politics.