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Posted December 20, 2006 by J. Gerald Hebert

Gerrymandering Is Alive and Well: Why We Need Redistricting Reform

Despite the “tidal wave” that allowed Democrats to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Republicans for the first time since 1994, the undemocratic effects of blatant political gerrymandering were alive and well.  Across the country the levees of politically gerrymandered congressional districts held against the tidal surge of voter outrage.  The 2006 elections proved why gerrymandering is still a national scandal, and why those of us pushing for redistricting reform are more emboldened than ever.

Most states have vested authority over congressional redistricting in their state legislatures and that is where the problems often begin.  Many of these state legislators are anxious to move up the political food chain, and so some of these politicians actually carve out a congressional district for themselves.  In the post-1990 round of redistricting, for example, soon-to-be eighth term incumbent Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) did precisely this in her role as a state senator and chairperson of the Texas Senate Redistricting Committee.  A more recent example is how Congressman Tom Feeney from Florida (R), who as speaker of the Florida House in 2001 carved out a district for himself, which he has since won convincingly in 2002, 2004 and again in 2006. 

In states where one party has a monopoly over state government (as Johnson’s Democrats did in Texas in 1991 and Feeney’s Republicans did in Florida in 2001), drawing districts to bludgeon the other side of the aisle can be a relatively easy task.  The precision with which it can be done, given the level of political data and sophisticated redistricting software available to gerrymanderers, is unfathomable to most Americans.  With control of the state house, state senate and Governorship all in the hands of one party, no political compromises are needed to get a redistricting map passed.  All that is necessary is party unity and discipline.  In the post-2000 round of redistricting, Democrats possessed few such monopolies while Republicans held a number of these trifectas.  And in a few of those states where Democrats did hold a monopoly on state government in 2001 (e.g., California), the State was one that voted decidedly Democratic (or “blue”) in national elections already.  ( California though had the sad distinction of producing a bi-partisan gerrymander that safeguarded every incumbent so thoroughly that in three election cycles involving 159 congressional elections only one seat changed parties.)

The two most effective means of rigging the voting process in redistricting are known as “packing” and “cracking.”  Packing occurs when the party in control of the redistricitng process places as many voters of the opposite party into a single district to reduce their influence in other districts.  Cracking on the other hand disperses a concentration of voters from an opponent’s party into numerous districts in order to hinder the ability of those voters to elect representatives of their choice.  

With control of the state house, state senate and Governorship all in the hands of one party, no political compromises are needed to get a redistricting map passed — no matter how unfair it may be to voters from the opposite party.  All that is necessary is party unity and discipline.  Passing a gerrymandered map no longer even requires waiting for the turn of the decade and the next U.S. census.  The Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn the mid-decade Texas re-redistricting of 2003 (which saw only one district overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on Voting Rights Act grounds) makes clear that redistricting is no longer a decennial blood sport, but can occur repeatedly throughout the decade.  In the aftermath of the Texas re-redistricting, Georgia Republicans redrew the congressional districts and the legislative districts for the second time this decade.  Colorado Republicans also attempted a re-redistricting of congressional districts, but the move was ruled contrary to the state constitution. 

Republicans, on the other hand, held unilateral control in many more states in 2001, and in a number of those states (e.g., Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania), Democrats actually fared slightly better than Republicans in national elections or at least were roughly equivalent with Republicans in political strength (many label these states “purple” because they are so closely divided in national elections).

A closer look at Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania clearly reveals the grip that gerrymandering has on congressional elections in these four so-called “purple” states.

 

Florida 

In Florida, in 2000, whether one believes Al Gore or George Bush actually received the most votes, most would agree that the state is almost evenly split politically.  In 2004, President Bush narrowly carried Florida over Senator John Kerry and in 2006, the State elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate seat.  But Florida’s congressional delegation in the wake of the post-2000 redistricting has not in the least resembled a state nearly evenly divided between the two major parties.

As a result of the 2000 census, Florida gained two new congressional seats which gave it 25.  With Republicans in total control of state government, the districts were gerrymandered in a way that packed Democrats into a few congressional districts, much to the dismay of Democratic incumbents.  The extreme politically gerrymandering engineered in Florida by Republican leaders such as then-Speaker, now Congressman Tom Feeney, worked like a charm.  Of the 25 congressional seats, Democrats were only able to win election in seven seats in 2002 and again in 2004.  A Republican advantage in Congress of more than two to one in a state that most would agree is evenly split between Democratic voters and Republican voters! 

So what happened in Florida’s congressional districts in 2006 — a year that saw many Republicans unseated in other states as a result of a voting public that ranked corruption on capitol Hill as their most important concern?  Only one Republican incumbent was actually defeated (Clay Shaw).  It is true too that former Republican congressman Mark Foley’s district also changed hands and went Democratic, but this is considered by many to be a fluke, given he was left on the November ballot but had already resigned his seat over the congressional page scandal.  Political pundits predict this seat will return to Republican hands in the next election.  Not a single other Republican incumbent in Florida lost their seat.  And Congressman Feeney, who drew himself a district in 2001, won re-election by a wide margin over his Democratic challenger, garnering nearly 60% of the vote. 

Even if Democrats are successful in the post-election challenge in Florida’s 13th District, the party would have only ten congressional seats to the Republicans 15 in a state that’s split politically 50-50.  This post-2000 gerrymandering in Florida shows why, even in a year where Democrats were able to knock off Republican incumbents in other states, they fared poorly in Florida.  The margin of victory for the seven Democratic seats (including six incumbents) shows just how effectively gerrymandered (and thus politically uncompetitive) these districts are at packing Democrats into districts:

Rep. Boyd (FL-2)                                  100% (unopposed)

Rep. Brown (FL-3)                               100% (unopposed)

Rep. Hastings (FL-23)                           100% (unopposed)

Rep. Meek (FL-17)                               100% (unopposed)

Rep. Wasserman Shultz (FL-20)            100% (unopposed)

Rep. Wexler (FL-19)                             100% (unopposed)

Rep. Castor (FL-11)                              69.7% (non-incumbent)

 

Michigan

Al Gore carried Michigan in 2000 and John Kerry carried the state in 2004.  Both U.S. Senators from Michigan are Democrats, as is the Governor.  So the State is decidedly Democratic in national elections.  It is, in today’s political jargon, at least a purple state, if not a blue state.  Republicans controlled the state senate, state house and Governor’s chair in 2001 and masterfully gerrymandered districts in a way that packed Democrats into the fewest number of districts possible.  The post-2001 redistricting plan forced Democratic incumbents to face-off against each other and invariably a number of them went down to defeat.  As a result, in the 15 member Michigan congressional delegation in 2002, there were only six Democrats left standing.  All incumbents in Michigan were re-elected in 2004, leaving Republicans again with a nine to six advantage in a blue state. 

The “perfect storm” of the 2006 election that saw Democrats sweep to power nationally on a wave of voter disgust with corruption in Congress, faced a stiff challenge in Michigan’s stacked Congressional districts.  How many seats would Democrats pick up in a blue state in a year when Republicans bore the burden of one of the largest corruption scandals ever?  The answer is a big fat zero.  Not a single Republican candidate lost.  And this is true even as Democrats took over 56.4% of the vote statewide in Governor’s race and 56.9% of the vote in the contested U.S. Senate race in 2006.  And it’s also true even though the Michigan State House flipped from Republican controlled before the 2006 elections (by a margin of 58 Republicans and 48 Democrats (with three vacancies) to a post-2006 election total of 58 Democrats and 52 Republicans. 

So despite coasting to landslide margins of victory in the two statewide contests in 2006, Democrats failed to pick up a single congressional seat held by Republicans.  Thus, Democrats today still hold only 40% of seats (six of 15) where they comprise a strong majority of the voters in national elections.  In fact, five of the nine Republican incumbents in Michigan received over 60% of the vote in their safely gerrymandered districts.  The margin of victory for the six winning Democratic incumbents shows just how packed these gerrymandered districts are and why, even in a year where Democrats picked up congressional seats from coast to coast, the Michigan gerrymander prevented them from doing so.  Not a single incumbent won reelection by a margin of less than 40% of the vote:

Rep. Stupak (MI-1)                             69.4%

Rep. Kildee (MI-5)                              72.9%

Rep. Levin (MI-12)                              70.2%

Rep. Dingell (MI-15)                            87.9%

Rep. Conyers (MI-14)                         85%

Rep. Kilpatrick (MI-13)                       100% (unopposed)

 

Ohio 

President Bush received 50% and 51% of the vote in Ohio in 2000 and 2004, respectively, in hard fought races with Al Gore and John Kerry.  In the November 2006 elections, however, statewide Democratic candidates won convincingly by landslide margins.  In that election, Ohioans elected Democrat Sherrod Brown with 55.9% of the vote in the statewide election against a sitting U.S. Senator.  In the Governor’s race, Democrat Ted Strickland coasted to a victory, capturing over 60% of the vote statewide.  

Back in 2001, Ohio had a Republican Governor and a Republican controlled state house and senate.  The Ohio Legislature drew districts in such a way as to minimize Democratic voting strength and maximize Republican voting strength.  When the dust settled, Democrats, who comprise roughly half of the state’s voters in national elections, held only six of the 18 congressional seats.  The six Democratically-controlled districts were so packed with Democrats that the six incumbents received over 60% of the vote in 2004, and all but one received over 59% of the vote in 2002. 

The scandals of 2006, however, seemed the perfect opportunity for Democrats in Ohio to make gains in the congressional delegation.  Some predicted huge losses for Ohio Republicans in the 2006 elections, in part because Congressman Bob Ney (R) had resigned his seat over his criminal involvement in the Jack Abramoff scandal.  The state was also rocked hard by other recent state-level scandals involving Republican officeholders.  But despite Democrats capturing both statewide offices by large margins against a sitting Governor and Senator, they only picked up one congressional seat in 2006: ex-Congressman Ney’s seat.  Not a single Republican congressional incumbent went down to defeat in 2006.  The Ohio congressional delegation still tilts decidedly Republican even after the 2006 elections, with 11 Republicans and eight Democrats in a state where Democrats swept to victory in statewide races on the issue of corruption.  The incumbents breezed to reelection with the closest race decided by a two-to-one margin.  Even the open “packed” districts saw Democrats maintain control with victories by more than twenty percentage points:

Rep. Kaptur (OH-9)                            73.6%

Rep. Kucinich (OH-10)                        66.3%

Rep. Tubbs-Jones (OH-11)                 83.3%

Rep. Ryan (OH-17)                             80.2%

Rep. Sutton (OH-13)                           61.2% (non-incumbent)

Rep. Wilson (OH-6)                             61.9% (non-incumbent)

 

Pennsylvania 

In the last two Presidential elections Al Gore (2000) and John Kerry (2004) carried Pennsylvania.  And in November 2006 Pennsylvania voters unseated an incumbent U.S. Senator, electing Robert Casey with 58.7% of the vote.  Similarly, Democrat Ed Rendell was elected Governor in 2006, capturing 60.3% of the vote statewide.  But at the time of the Commonwealth’s last redistricting in 2001 Republicans occupied the Governor’s chair and held sizeable majorities in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate.  Pennsylvania lost two congressional seats following the 2000 census, and like Michigan, the shrinking congressional delegation gave Republicans an opportunity to force some Democratic incumbents to square off against each other and pack Democratic voters tightly into fewer districts.  And that is precisely what they did.  As a result of the 2001 Republican gerrymander, Democrats ended up controlling only seven of 19 seats.  Now unlike some of the other states mentioned in this piece, Democrats actually picked up four congressional seats held by Republican incumbents in the 2006 elections.  So the Republican gerrymander of 2001 was not quite as bulletproof as the Michigan, Florida, and Ohio efforts.  Some critics accused the Pennsylvania legislators of overreaching and cutting their margins too thinly to withstand a voter backlash of the scale seen in 2006.  In some circles, Pennsylvania’s redistricting is referred to as the “dummymander.”

But even in a state where Democrats made gains, two things stick out.  First, if the size of the Democratic statewide landslide had been even slightly smaller, Republicans would have likely retained a majority of the congressional districts.  Two of the four Democratic victories were by very narrow margins (with 52% or less of the vote).  So the Republicans would have maintained their majority in the Pennsylvania congressional delegation even if the Democrats had won 54% of the vote statewide (instead of the higher percentage they actually garnered).  And needless to say districts “packed” with Democratic voters were barely contested with no race closer than 22%:

Rep. Brady (PA-1)                               100% (unopposed)

Rep. Fattah (PA-2)                              88.6%

Rep. Schwartz (PA-13)                        66.1%

Rep. Kanjorski (PA-11)                       72.4%

Rep. Holden (PA-17)                           64.6%

Rep. Doyle (PA-14)                             90.1%

Rep. Murtha (PA-12)                           60.7%

_

In any event, if one looks at the five large states with pro-Republican, anticompetitive gerrymanders — the nation's four biggest “purple” states ( Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan) plus Texas, a “red” state — we find that Pennsylvania was aberrational.  The four states other than Pennsylvania continued to perform disproportionately well for Republicans in the U.S. House, even as Democrats were winning by landslides in the U.S. Senate contests in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.  In sum, Democrats picked up one House seat in Texas (because there was no Republican on the ballot once Tom DeLay resigned), two seats in Florida (where, even with the two new seats, Democrats will have elected only nine out of 25 seats), one seat in Ohio (where Democrats will have only seven out of 18), and zero seats in Michigan (where Democrats will continue to have only six out of 15).

          So in these five states (including Pennsylvania), it appears that Democrats in the next Congress will have only 45 seats, as compared to 64 seats for the Republicans.  Given how strong a year it was for Democrats at the polls, the figures in these states continue to be lopsidedly Republican, reflecting the continuing effects of the Republican gerrymanders

Some members of the Supreme Court have decided that the federal courts should not wade into the political gerrymandering thicket.  Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, believed (erroneously) that partisan gerrymandering was a “self-limiting enterprise.”   If that were so, one would think that the best time and place for the Democrats to pick up ground would be in a year when Democrats ride a national wave and in Republican-gerrymandered states.  Even though 2006 was such a year, that did not turn out to be the case.  Instead, Democrats did best in states where the congressional maps were produced by bipartisan compromise, by courts, or by commissions — including, for example, Arizona, Iowa, New York, Indiana, and Connecticut.   Such numbers show that redistricting reform offers the greatest prospect for the creation of districts that give voters real choices on Election Day.   

If our nation’s congressional districting maps were reasonably responsive to swings in the electorate, and if maps in some of these larger purple states were not heavily biased in favor of Republicans (principally due to the maps in the five states discussed above), the Democratic majority in the upcoming 110th Congress would have been much, much larger.  Districts that fail to switch hands even when one political party captures a sizeable majority of the electorate in a state, combined with excessive gerrymandering are two unfortunate features of the way our electoral districts are drawn today.  These features prevent political parties from making gains even when the electorate swings their way. 

For 2006, it was Democrats who saw their gains severely constrained, and this occurred despite the fact that voters clearly wanted massive change (as exhibited by the startling six-seat Democratic pickup in the Senate).  In the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans suffered the effects of excessive Democratic gerrymanders.  What is clear now more than ever, is that voters and our democracy suffer most of all from partisan gerrymandering.  It is high time we did something to fix it.   And redistricting reform will get us started down that path.  If we hope to maintain some semblance of a representative democracy, voters must be allowed to choose politicians, not the other way around.

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