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Redistricting: A Story Of Divisive Politics, Odd Shapes

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
September 24, 2012

Journalist Robert Draper says the 27th Congressional District in South Texas looks like a Glock pistol. It’s just one of several “funny shapes” you will see in states across the U.S. as a result of the redrawing of congressional boundaries — otherwise known as redistricting.

“These maps can be very, very fanciful — they’re these kinds of impressionistic representations of the yearnings and deviousness of politics today,” Draper tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies.

Every 10 years, after the census is taken, the states that gained the most people are entitled to more congressional districts. They’re taken from the states that lost the most people. The law allows for only 435 congressional districts — and so the process requires new electoral district maps to be drawn, primarily by state legislatures and, in some cases, independent bodies or bipartisan committees.

In his Atlantic article “The League of Dangerous Mapmakers,” Draper traces the manipulation of the redistricting process for electoral gain — or “gerrymandering” — back to 1788, before Congress existed.

Originally designed in the Constitution as a way to balance electoral scales, redistricting has now become an opportunity for representatives to build an “impregnable garrison that consists of the best voting bloc likeliest to keep him in power for a long period of time,” Draper says.

And it’s an opportunity for the Republican- or Democrat-controlled state legislatures drawing the maps to help politicians in their parties and “to gut the districts of the opposing party,” according to Draper.

While it’s illegal to dilute the voting power of minorities, Draper says that the law allows for politically motivated redistricting and that there are powerful, expert map-drawers such as Tom Hofeller, who has been “counted upon to draw these very, very aggressive maps but to do so in a legal manner” for the Republican Party.

In 2011, Draper embedded himself in the House of Representatives to research his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the House of Representatives.

“I heard far less talk about how can we work together to achieve a solution and far more talk about how can I get my map redrawn so that I get the voters I want and I basically won’t have to take tough votes,” he says.

Draper says redistricting has created increasingly solid Republican or Democratic congressional districts, which has led to more right-wing and left-wing representatives who are unwilling to compromise.

Interview Highlights

On the origins of redistricting, or “gerrymandering”

“It’s been going on since there was a Congress. In fact, in 1788, when they were drawing maps for the first federal Congress, the state of Virginia got into some serious — what was not then known as gerrymandering, but would soon be — when Patrick Henry had his arch foe James Madison running and he wanted Madison to lose. So he convinced the Virginia Legislature to draw Madison into the same district that James Monroe was running in — the 5th Congressional District — in hopes that Madison would lose. Madison ended up winning. He became the fourth president of the United States, and when he was the president, he had as his vice president a fellow named Elbridge Gerry. Elbridge Gerry had been governor of Massachusetts, and when Gerry was governor in 1812, he presided over map-drawing so radical in Massachusetts, that it included a very strange-looking congressional district outside of Boston that was shaped like a salamander in an effort to appease the particular congressman there. And so this is where Elbridge Gerry’s creation that looked like a salamander gave rise to the term ‘gerrymandering’ that we’ve used ever since.”

On how the 27th District of Texas came to look like a Glock pistol

“The 27th District of Texas, this is where Corpus Christi, Texas, is and that seat is currently represented by a Tea Party freshman named Blake Farenthold — a very sort of legendary name in Texas is his grandmother Sissy Farenthold, who was a liberal icon there. Blake Farenthold is not a liberal — he managed to eke out a victory. He won by something like 900 votes in a recount, beating a veteran Hispanic incumbent, Solomon Ortiz, in a district that is something like 90 percent Hispanic. Eight-six percent of Hispanics voted against Blake Farenthold. How did he win? Because the Hispanic turnout was abysmally low in this midterm year, and there was a very, very high Tea Party turnout, which favored Farenthold. So he won but knew he was living on borrowed time — that the demographics of his district were such that unless there was another wave election, he would likely be swept out. So Farenthold was very, very hopeful that redistricting would favor him. And it did. The Republicans took the 27th District. They saw their endangered new Republican inhabitant, and what they did simply was saw off the district the town of Brownsville, which is where the preponderance of Hispanics in his districts reside. And instead, they redrew the map, minus Brownsville, and into an area, a corridor further north and west that is distinctly Republican. And so, Farenthold — I find to be a very self-effacing and plainspoken congressman — and I asked him, ‘So why didn’t you just say, “Look, I’m content with the district that I have and I’m willing to compete to win in my district yet again.” ‘ And he said, ‘Look , I would rather have a 60 percent Republican district than a swing district any day — duh.’ So that’s what he has. And for the next 10 years, he is essentially protected as a Republican.”

On the “wrong” way to do redistricting

“Well, the wrong way to do it is, to put it crassly, to get greedy — to recognize that you have an opportunity now, that you’re the party in power and you can draw the maps — and to try in one fell swoop to grab all that you can get. There are two problems with that, as [Tom] Hofeller points out. One of them is that there are often legal problems if you, for example, cut into a Hispanic community and dilute their voting power. Then that’s what’s known as retrogression, which in one of the states that has been covered in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for having a history of discrimination would cause those new maps to be thrown out. And the other matter is you have to think long-term, even if you have an opportunity right now to aid your district by trying to avoid, let’s say, a certain constituency that you don’t want. Then that may come back to haunt you in years later, when that constituency grows so much that it results in the need to form an altogether new district that will be from the other party. “

On the impact of redistricting on politics

“As we’ve gotten more aggressive in partisan redistricting, one effect of this … has been the drastic diminishing of the number of swing districts. So what this means is that districts are becoming more and more red, or more and more blue. If you’re going to win in a red congressional district, then that means you have to be as right wing as possible in the primary — the guy who’s the most conservative wins. And then, really, the general election doesn’t count because it’s a red district. The same with a very blue district — you have to be all the way to the left, and that’s the person who wins. Those individuals who come to Washington are not individuals who are predisposed to view anything with the desire to compromise. And we saw this phenomenon take place most recently in 2011 rather dramatically with the debt ceiling debate. There have been studies that have shown that the people who were most apt to vote for the debt ceiling deal were people from the swing states, and the people least apt to vote for it — the people who were keeping us on brink of default — were those who came from very, very hardcore districts, in this case usually red districts, Republican districts. And so, yeah, it’s a matter of some concern. As we see the intensifying gridlock in Washington, D.C., there’s no question that redistricting has played a role in that.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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