Drawing voters back into the electoral process: why and how.

AuthorTanner, John


Redistricting is required to ensure equal representation under the law, but the irony is the current process itself is leading to the destruction of a representative government. There is an enormous amount of energy and money that goes into the redistricting process every ten years--and sometimes more frequently--which serves no larger purpose than to give advantage to one party over another.

Gerrymandering is nearly as old as our republic. The name, of course, comes from Elbridge Gerry, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Massachusetts, and Vice President. While the names of the political parties have changed over time, the purpose of gerrymandering is still the same: to politically engineer districts to have a better chance of producing a partisan advantage.

Fifty years ago a new chapter in redistricting opened, coincidentally, in Shelby County, Tennessee, which was a part of the congressional district we served (Tanner as an eleven-term representative, and Ford and Dinkler as senior aides). In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of Baker v. Carr. (1) At the time of the suit, the Tennessee General Assembly had failed to redraw legislative maps since the 1901 census. Over that time, the population of Tennessee had grown and shifted. The plaintiff, Charles Baker, who served as an elected official in the Shelby County (Memphis) government, argued that citizens in his county were denied their equal protection rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In its ruling, the Court found that redistricting was a justiciable issue to which the plaintiffs were entitled to relief.

Baker v. Carr and subsequent Supreme Court decisions set the "one person, one vote" standard, which constitutionally required regular redistricting of state legislative and congressional districts. (2) The responsibility for redistricting, however, remained with the elected officials, who were free to collude with or strong-arm their political opponents to draw favorable districts.

In 2003, Republicans in Texas used a new-found legislative majority to redraw that state's congressional map, an action that in mid-decade was initiated not by new census numbers but to achieve a purely partisan purpose. The new map resulted in four out of five targeted Democrats losing their seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. (3) Legal challenges to this map were almost entirely unsuccessful, (4) and as a result it now stands that state legislatures have wide latitude to redraw their legislative and congressional maps to achieve a purely partisan objective at any time. (5)


    The result of these abuses is an increasingly polarized House of Representatives, where members--well-intentioned public servants as they may be--pledge allegiance to party first. Members of Congress act increasingly like European Members of Parliament, handing over their voting cards to party leadership on all but the most controversial of votes. Advances in technology allow political insiders to surgically slice and dice districts to satisfy the "one person, one vote" requirement, while engineering elections that can be decided in a party primary.

    In the 111th Congress (2009-2010), when we authors most recently worked together, only 91 of 435 House districts were within a 4-point margin of error of a 50/50 voting pattern. (6) In other words, 344 districts were drawn to so heavily favor one party or another that there was little question as to which party would win the general election. With a few exceptions (including Tennessee's 8th District, which is ranked R+8), there was little question as to which party's candidate would win the November election.

    When general election victory is all but assured, Members of Congress know their only real threat will come in a party primary, and they find themselves paralyzed, unable to work with their colleagues across the aisle.

    In 2008, during the 110th Congress, for example, the Democratic-led House was considering a supplemental spending bill to fund the war in Iraq and to provide additional GI Bill benefits for women and men returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. (7) The Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats (of which one of the authors, Tanner, is a founding member) felt that such a benefit was an important priority for the country but that they should also adhere to the House's "pay as you go" rules instead of requiring additional borrowed money. The provision should have been uncontroversial, garnering easy support among those who talk endlessly about supporting our troops and lowering our national debt, views shared by most in both parties inside and outside the Beltway. But many in the House Republican Conference refused to pay for the provision because it would have raised taxes by $500 on those making more than $1 million annually. Privately, some House Republicans admitted they agreed with the Blue Dog position that national priorities should be paid for and that those who have the most should be willing to help provide for those who gave the most to their country. These members were unable to vote their conscience, however, because they feared an intraparty challenge painting them as out-of-control tax-raisers, putting them at danger of losing their party's primary.

    The Club for Growth, an influential, conservative, anti-tax organization headed at that time by now-Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), targeted this vote in its annual scorecard of Members of Congress. (8) In describing this key vote, the Club for Growth's scorecard states that "[t]he pro-growth vote was 'nay' be cause higher marginal income tax rates greatly harm economic growm." (9) Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, another group critical to the viability of members in conservative Congressional districts, took a similar view of this legislation. A press release explaining the position stated:

    [T]he Democrat majority in the House included a $54 billion marginal income tax increase to pay for extra education subsidies for veterans. This would have been the first marginal income tax...

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