Jewish World Review March 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Nisan, 5762
John H. Fund
Elbridge Gerry (whose name was pronounced "Gary") gave gerrymandering its name in 1812 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he drew a district that his opponents said resembled a salamander. But Gov. Gerry's handiwork is child's play compared with what the latest computers can do. New software allows politicians to draw districts so partisan that the only way for an incumbent to lose is by alienating his party. In Michigan, a GOP-controlled legislature has created a congressional gerrymander that stuffs six Democratic incumbents into three seats. In Georgia, Democrats controlled the mapping pens and drew a congressional plan that pushed four GOP incumbents into two districts.
This kind of partisanship has long been tolerated by voters who view it as just politics or so much inside baseball. It's time they woke up. The new, computer-driven gerrymandering is now dramatically reducing political competition to the point that most voters will have no effective choice at all at the polls. In 2000, more than 20% of House members had no major party challenger. George W. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes, but 10 of the 21 Florida House incumbents ran unopposed. Political analysts in both parties agree that there will is significantly less competition under new district lines in 2002. Only some 30 of the 435 House seats will competitive this November.
In North Carolina gerrymandering is clearly predetermining political competitions. Last year, the Democrats rammed through a redistricting plan that effectively locks in their legislative control for the next 10 years. Nonpartisan analysts say that in the 120-member state House the number of safe Democratic seats has increased to 87 from 58. The number of "swing" or competitive districts was reduced to 20 from 46. In other words, less than one in five districts is winnable by either party barring extraordinary circumstances.
Would-be candidates pondering a run for state Legislature bailed out in droves once they got a look at gerrymandered districts. When filing closed earlier this month, a record 49 seats had only one candidate on the ballot. In the state Senate, 24 of the 60 seats will offer voters no choice this fall. So a stunning 43% of the North Carolina Legislature has, in effect, already been elected. Two years ago, only 19% of legislative elections in the House and Senate were uncontested.
Elections in many semifree Third World nations routinely offer more choices than many North Carolina residents will have. In the county that includes Charlotte, the state's largest city, only three of the 13 state legislative incumbents will face an opponent in the fall. In Greensboro, a freshman House Democrat named Katie Dorsett is running for a vacant state Senate seat and will be unopposed in both the primary and general election.
Courts have traditionally avoided becoming involved in challenges to gerrymanders, usually ruling that the process is inherently political. But last month, a North Carolina state judge, Knox Jenkins, ruled that the gerrymander was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily divides counties in violation of the state constitution. Lawyers for the Legislature argue that the need for the state to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act trumps the state constitution. But many other states have been able to square their state constitutions with the Voting Rights Act without having to draw absurd gerrymanders.
On Thursday North Carolina's Supreme Court unanimously enjoined the state from conducting its May 7 state legislative primaries pending a full hearing on Judge Knox's ruling next month. Yesterday the state's Board of Elections postponed all voting on that day, including the U.S. Senate primary.
Judge Knox will consider a request by several Republicans to have the gerrymandered districts redrawn. Throwing out the plan under which candidates have already filed would be unusual. Since the alternative Republican-drawn plans have their own clearly partisan tilt, the court would have to go through the arduous process of drawing its own maps.
But it's possible the court will find that this time the gerrymanderers in North Carolina have simply gone too far. Back in 1787, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an attempt by the state Legislature to take away the right of trial by jury. The court noted that if the Legislature could do that, "they might with equal authority . . . render themselves legislator of the State for life, without any further election of the people."
Two hundred fifteen years later, incumbents are using high-powered computers to create lifetime sinecures for
themselves. That kind of privilege and protection is certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when
they overthrew a monarchy to form a
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?