The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing a case on the politically biased drawing of electoral districts for the first time. Depending on how the justices rule, this could be a watershed moment for fairness in elections both nationally and here in Connecticut.
The United States is unique in a lot of disheartening ways, from gun crime to the Electoral College to chicken fried steak, and the way we draw and redraw electoral district boundaries is no exception. This is a process left up to the states to decide, and almost all of them have instituted some backward, highly political method that is made to keep whoever’s in power in their seats. It should be no surprise that “gerrymander,” referring to a weirdly-shaped district meant to favor a party or candidate, is an Americanism.
The courts have ruled against racial gerrymandering in the past, especially when it comes to creating districts that crowd the vast majority of racial minorities together into a very small number of seats, thus watering their electoral power down. A ridiculous North Carolina map was struck down recently by the Supreme Court, which asserted that the Republicans who drew the map relied too heavily on race when creating boundaries.
However, this new case would be the first time the high court has looked at purely partisan political gerrymandering. Democrats from Wisconsin are claiming that the same thing that happened in North Carolina is happening to them, but with party taken into account instead of race. Republicans, the argument goes, are manufacturing majorities for themselves through unfair redistricting.
Which, of course, is exactly what’s been happening. If you ever wonder why more people voted for Democratic congressional candidates in 2012 but the Republicans wound up with a majority of 33 seats in the House of Representatives, it’s because the GOP controlled enough state legislatures in 2010 to draw the maps to their own liking. In North Carolina, the legislature has exclusive control over how the districts are drawn — and the governor can’t veto it. A simple majority of Republicans, then, could create a highly partisan and racially isolating map with no check but the court system.
It’s deeply unfair, and it’s a lousy way to run a democracy. Other countries do this better. Canada and Mexico both have independent bodies overseeing all federal elections (Elections Canada and the Instituto Nacional Electoral), including the drawing of constituency boundaries. The United Kingdom has something similar, the Electoral Commission, which is responsible for administering nationwide elections.
A few states in the U.S. are moving in this direction. California has an independent commission that sets boundaries, for instance, and most states have an independently elected Secretary of the State who oversees elections. There is no federal standard, however, which is why different states have different types of voting machines, different poll hours, different voter identification laws, and different ways of creating voting districts.
Our redistricting process here in Connecticut is also broken, though not as badly as some other states. The legislature is required to convene a committee comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to work out a new map — if they can’t agree, a so-called “special master” is appointed to do their work for them. This has happened twice since the 1965 Constitution was enacted, most recently in 2011.
It’s still a mess. Districts are basically created to preserve incumbency, and several of the congressional districts in the state have … odd … shapes. The Hartford-based first district, for example, manages to warp its way north to include Torrington somehow while excluding New Britain. It looks like a weirdly-shaped dragon’s head.
The initial point of this was to shape the adjacent 5th district into something that U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) of New Britain could win after her district, the 6th, was lost to stagnating population. Instead of grouping the Farmington Valley with Hartford, it went to the new 5th. But all of that happened nearly 20 years ago. The districts were barely changed in 2011, so we’re stuck with 2001’s bad decisions.
The Supreme Court may decide this sort of thing has to go, but Connecticut shouldn’t sit around waiting. We can and should still try to put an amendment on the ballot in 2020 that would give redistricting to an independent commission and take it out of the hands of the legislature. That commission should have a strict set of guidelines to follow when it comes to drawing the lines.
I hope the court changes our outdated and unfair system of drawing districts. But, failing that, we need to make sure our own state leads the way.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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