Remap Debate Has Democrats Adopting Position of Convenience

Posted October 29, 2003 at 2:22pm

When I was teaching political science at Bucknell University, redistricting was a regular topic in my classes. My standard comments on the matter included the assertion that state legislatures could redistrict whenever they wanted to since there was no prohibition against it. [IMGCAP(1)]

Texas Democrats apparently think I was wrong, since they are challenging the state Legislature’s right to redraw Congressional district lines this year.

I also told my students that drawing districts was an inherently partisan act, and that gerrymandering was a time-honored practice that the courts would not put an end to (as long as a redistricting plan didn’t violate one-man, one-vote). Later, of course, the courts acted to stop legislatures from “diluting” minority voters, but as far as I knew, they did not reject even the most bizarre forms of partisan gerrymandering.

But now, Pennsylvania Democrats have challenged the state’s most recent redistricting, arguing essentially that they are a protected class and the Legislature shouldn’t be able to “dilute” their impact by creating strangely shaped districts intended to elect as many Republicans as possible.

Given the Democrats’ arguments, I’m expecting some of my former students to demand that I regrade their exams from the late 1970s.

I don’t know what a bunch of judges will hold, but I do know that Democrats are now asking for a fundamental shift in the way this nation approaches redistricting.

As someone who has criticized redistricting plans in the past in this space (including lines in Georgia), let me be clear in saying that the Democrats are all wet in their current arguments. They are wrong, and I hope the courts rule that way.

I say this even though I agree entirely with Democrats that states should not redistrict in mid-decade and that districts should be compact and contiguous, not drawn primarily to maximize partisan advantage. I hope that legislative bodies will take steps to ensure that we will not see a reoccurrence of what we witnessed in Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia or other gerrymandered states.

If you’re confused by my position, or simply think I’m confused, let me spell out what I mean.

Until the Democrats started making their argument that states are not allowed to redraw district lines whenever they want, I had never heard that argument. I hadn’t heard it from political scientists, lawyers or political operatives. I realize that I may not have heard about it because nobody cared and because there was not an active case that sparked the discussion, but I’m not convinced of that.

There is nothing sacred about particular district lines or about when they can be drawn, except for the fact that they must be redrawn after every census. There are plenty of reasons not to draw lines more than once every 10 years, but that’s not the same as saying the activity is prohibited.

I believe that Democrats are making their arguments now only because they will be hurt by the outcome of the latest redistricting in Texas. Indeed, Democrats in the nation’s capital once promised retaliation by Democratic legislators in Oklahoma and New Mexico if Texas Republicans proceeded with redistricting, an interesting position if those same Democrats thought what was happening in the Lone Star State was unconstitutional.

Whatever you think of the Texas challenge, it seems downright reasonable when compared to the Pennsylvania case. And that’s why it is so inexplicable that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider the issue.

Partisanship has always been the driving force behind redistricting. When states’ laws have allowed, legislators of one party have often tried to stick it to the opposition by dividing counties, cities or so-called “communities of interest.”

Reformers have for years argued that districts should be compact and contiguous, believing that that would limit the amount of mischief legislators could make. Personally, I’d turn redistricting over to a nonpartisan board, but that’s a decision for legislators to make, not judges.

I might feel differently if I thought that Democrats really were standing on principle. But I didn’t hear any Democrats in Georgia (or Washington, D.C., for that matter) complaining about the state’s redistricting plan, which was drawn by Democratic legislators primarily with partisanship in mind.

District lines in the Peach State surely are as indefensible as the ones in Pennsylvania.

Legislators around the country have created hundreds of districts that are not competitive. That’s not good for politics or government (or people who write about politics). But wisely, the courts have never asserted their right to dictate how districts are drawn (at least unless the state legislators have abrogated their authority by failing to agree on a plan), and now is not the time for them to begin doing so.

So I hope Democrats lose their arguments in court but win changes in the redistricting process. But I doubt they’ll pursue those changes in states where they have the political power to give themselves the upper hand. In the end, it’s only politics.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.