The long redistricting saga got a little less suspenseful Thursday when the Supreme Court handed the court-appointed special master, Columbia Law School professor Nathanial Persily, instructions to do as little district boundary shifting as possible. This, if you remember, is basically what Democrats were originally proposing; a district map that looks a lot like the one we already have. This emphasis on the existing boundaries is also what lawyers for Democrats argued before the court. Republicans argued that the 2001 map shouldn’t necessarily be a starting place, that the redistricting process was a chance to make the best possible districts instead of just tweaking what we already had, and that principles of compactness and keeping communities of interest together should be vital.
Their arguments, sadly, fell on deaf ears. “In developing the plan,” the court said, “The Special Master shall modify the existing congressional districts only to the extent reasonably required” to meet several legal standards, including equal district populations, contiguous territory and compliance with the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws. The Supreme Court only gave a very marginal nod to the idea of compactness, ordering that the new districts shouldn’t be “substantially less compact” than the existing ones. When looking at the first district, “compact” isn’t a word that immediately springs to mind, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.
So what does this mean? The special master is probably going to draw a map that is the 2001 map with a few tweaks to make the districts more even population-wise; the court hasn’t given him the authority to do much else. The court order is great news for Democrats, who currently hold all five districts, but it has to be infuriating for Republicans, who very rightly pointed out that the 2001 map has all kinds of flaws and was never subjected to judicial review. Of course, Republicans helped draw that map, and its initial result was a Democratic incumbent losing his seat to Nancy Johnson, so they’re reaping what they sowed. This is the action of a court that really does not in any way want to be in the redistricting business. It’s also the action of a court that wants things to be settled. The last special master to attempt to draw districts, Robert Bork in 1972, had a lot more latitude, but the legal challenges surrounding his map eventually landed the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s possible that the new map, despite all of the restrictions placed on the special master, will still be challenged in court. In fact, I’d be surprised if there weren’t legal attempts to stop the new map from becoming law, so we can look forward to a summer of lawsuits, legal posturing and uncertainty. Sounds like fun, right? But after it’s all said and done, don’t be surprised if you’re still voting in the same district when the election rolls around.
The long-term effects of a map almost entirely like the one we have now are surprisingly hard to predict. After all, looking at political landscape in 2002, how likely did anyone think it was that Republicans could go from holding three districts to zero? Historically, shifting party dominance in the congressional delegation has always been the rule. Demographics and political leanings shifted rapidly over the last decade, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. Republicans in the northeast could continue vanishing or they could make a remarkable resurgence. Democrats could consolidate their hold on all five seats, or they could find themselves reduced to just the first and third again. The idea of holding elections in 2020 based on the acts of politicians trying to game the political climate of nearly twenty years years before is strange, to be sure. For better or worse, however, we’re likely to be stuck with just that for another decade.
When this year’s dust settles, though, we should start thinking about that 2022 election. It’s ten years away, to be sure, but I’m not the only person saying that there has to be a better way to draw districts. If we start now, maybe by 2022 we can have in place a smart, effective redistricting process that cuts out the politics as much as possible. If we don’t, we’re just going to end up playing out this drama over and over again.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.