According to the Constitution:
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing [sic] Senators.
Congress and the courts state that each district must be of equal population, and there must be an equal opportunity for minorities to elect the candidate of their choice. This is why the census is really important; after the census, reapportionment and redistricting begins.
Gerrymandering–the process of changing district boundaries to suit political interests–has been named and in place in America since 1812. The term is a portmanteau of Massachusetts’ own then-governor, Elbridge Gerry (pronounced Gary) who signed a bill which redrew districts to benefit his party; and “salamander,” the shape into which Gerry redrew districts to better enable his party to win.
Gerrymandering plays part in every election, and is based, per the Constitution, to adjust for shifts in population, though usually the reapportionment and redistricting works to the benefit of incumbents and/or the party machines. In many cases, redistricting can suddenly move a candidate out of his/her original district and into one where they are unknown. Heck, it happened to Barack Obama in Chicago, and can happen to Republicans as well as to different ethnic and economic groups who may find themselves cut out or lumped in together, depending on the deals made…
Just a month ago, in what Republicans called a Democratic, city-based power grab, New York governor David Paterson ended the counting of prison inmates for the purpose of redistricting/reapportionment–prisoners can’t vote, and a prison population can shift district lines. Now inmates will be counted as living at their last known address, rather than at the Gray Bar Hotel.
Reichert gives a great look at the Great Texas Legislator Escape, when Democratic Party members from the two state houses, lacking the votes to defeat the redistricting plan headed for the hills–in this case over the state line into Oklahoma and New Mexico–making it impossible for a quorum to exist and blocking the redistricting efforts. The Texas Rangers were called to bring in missing officials, but having no jurisdiction returned to Austin empty handed.
Reichert wittily traces the history and practice of gerrymandering and follows California’s Prop 11 which was designed to change the process that is undertaken once every ten years of setting the geographic boundaries of the state’s 120 legislative districts and four Board of Equalization districts. Before Prop 11, redistricting was done by the State Legislature, which is like letting the fox guard the hen house.
Prop 11–which was supported by AARP, Common Cause and Gov. Schwarzenegger (who weirdly kept comparing just about everything to “a mooovie.” But hey that’s his frame of reference.)–passed by a very slim margin. It created a 14-person California Citizens Redistricting Commission. This election, on November 2, California’s Prop 20 further refines the process, transferring redistricting authority to the redistricting commission comprised of Democrats, Republicans, and representatives of neither party.
Along with exposing
the most effective form of manipulating elections short of outright fraud
Reichert introduces us to the fun Redistricting Game that lets us gerrymander, and gives us tools to empower our electorate to take back the vote, posing the question.