Constitution Watch: Two Parties, One Map

August 4th, 2011

Now that the debt ceiling crisis is over and done with (for now at least), the next big legislative fight that will be taking place this year will be redistricting battles in the states. As in mandated by the Constitution, state legislatures must redraw congressional and state legislative maps every ten years to represent the shifting population of the country. For some states, that means adding or subtracting districts if they’ve gained or lost people over the last decade. It sounds routine, but over the past few cycles, the process has become, for better or worse, less citizen-based and more party-based.

In the days of the Founding Fathers, redistricting was to ensure that each state was represented fairly in the House of Representatives, according to how many people the states had. Also, the political culture was different, because representatives, although organized into established political parties, were more focused on the states they represented than party dogma. Any real complaints regarding redistricting were largely laments regarding the shrinking of a state’s population, and thus its influence, which nobody could really do anything about.

Fast forward two hundred years to the present day, and its a whole different story. The increased political polarization of the country has made redistricting into a drawn-out affair over which party was going to benefit from a map redrawing. Also, the country has grown more culturally diverse, and districts are now created with the sole purpose of protecting minorities, sacrificing the mandate of districts being compact and contiguous, creating oddly-shaped districts that benefit one group of people. Also with the passage of the Voting Rights Act back in 1965, some states (mostly in the South), even lose their right to draw the maps themselves due to Washington’s fear of racial insensitivity in their maps, so the maps must be cleared by the Justice Department before they become official.

Some states avoid the problem by turning the responsibility over to independent commissions in an effort to remove partisanship over it, which is an improvement, but still subject to partisan influence. Then there is the Iowa method, which mandates that any district have whole counties and cities in them, to avoid accusations of partisan gerrymandering. The result is that Iowa has one of the least fought over processes in the country, and could be used as a model for other states’ redistricting efforts. However, Iowa is also relatively even in terms of party influence, which can’t be said for Democrat-heavy states like Illinois and California, or Republican-heavy Texas and North Carolina, so the odds of seeing one party willingly give up their clout is next to nothing, especially if there is no effort from the other side to do so.

Maybe George Washington was on to something when he stated his desire for America to not have political parties. Sure would’ve saved the country a whole lot of grief these past hundred years or so, and drawing maps would’ve been a lot easier.

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