Thursday, August 25, 2011

Word of the Day: Gerrymandering (Part 1)

This year marks the beginning of the nationwide decennial process known as redistricting, and in Georgia as nearly everywhere, redistricting is already playing out in contentious and newsworthy ways. Before we get to our word of the day, here's a bit about redistricting...

The U.S. Constitution mandates (Article I, Section 2) a once-per-decade federal Census (conducted in years ending with the numeral 0) to determine the number of people living in each state. The 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned among the 50 states based on these population findings, with the congressional delegations’ new sizes taking effect at the following election (held in years ending with the numeral 2). Since the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Reynolds v. Sims and Wesberry v. Sanders in 1964 – the latter a case concerning Georgia’s congressional districts – states must redraw their U.S. congressional and state legislative districts at least once per decade in accordance with new Census figures, and must draw them to be of relatively equal population. Prior to Wesberry, districts saw wide population variance, with one congressional seat in the Atlanta area comprising 823,680 people and one in rural Georgia just 272,154. Today, each congressional district in Georgia must have roughly 691,975 people, each State Senate district 172,994, and each State House district 53,820.

How is it done?
States use different processes for decennial redistricting. In California, for example, a nonpartisan commission composed of citizens with no recent electoral background draws boundaries without access to political data, and must consider only issues of geography or community ties, in addition to complying with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here in Georgia as in most states, however, the General Assembly is empowered to draw both U.S. congressional and state legislative lines, with approval from the Governor (unless the legislature has sufficient votes to override a veto). Legislatures can and do include political and other such information in redrawing districts, allowing for a more partisan atmosphere than one might expect from a state that excludes elected officials from the process.

And now, what is gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is the act of drawing districts for a particular agenda and without special regard to preserving communities of interest or establishing compact, logical seat boundaries. The term dates back to the early 19th century, when Elbridge Gerry, the Governor of Massachusetts and a former member of the Continental Congress, pressed the state legislature to draw a map of congressional districts intended to elect a delegation favorable to his Democratic-Republican Party instead of the opposition Federalists. A newspaper cartoonist at the time lampooned the map’s absurd meandering lines by drawing it as a menacing serpent-like creature, and the word “gerrymander” (a fusion of “Gerry” and “salamander”) was born. Today, gerrymandering can take several forms. Legislators can draw districts to maximize one party’s electoral fortunes (by, for example, packing neighborhoods favorable to the other party into a small number of districts) or for demographic purposes (to ensure a certain ethnic majority in a given district, for example, or to put voters of similar economic interests, like farmers, together).

Ethnic gerrymandering is generally evaluated with respect to the Voting Rights Act, which the courts have interpreted to mandate the creation of some districts with majorities of nonwhite voters (where practicable). The federal Justice Department has authority to preclear or deny district maps in certain states with histories of racial discrimination in redistricting; Georgia is one such state. Georgia’s current congressional map includes three districts with African-American voting-age majorities, and one with such a plurality.

Partisan gerrymandering is not banned by any federal or Georgia law. Here in Georgia, Republican-affiliated groups attacked the congressional and state legislative maps passed in 2001 as Democratic gerrymanders, and took steps both in court and in the General Assembly to strike down and replace those maps. Though gerrymandering has flourished in all levels of government since the 19th century, modern computer software has enabled political actors to access remarkably accurate and specific demographic information all the way down to the individual block level, making the process easier than ever before.

What does redistricting mean for Georgia?
For purposes of receiving federal dollars and enhancing its electoral clout during the next decade, Georgia stands to gain from reapportionment and redistricting. While the size of the U.S. House has been fixed at 435 for a century, Georgia’s population grew more rapidly than the national average during the 2000s, and so the state will gain one congressional seat for a total House delegation of 14 at the next election. Just as its congressional delegation will expand, Georgia will gain one more vote in the Electoral College in 2012, making it a state of 16 electors as opposed to the 15 it offered in the 2008 presidential election.

In tomorrow's post will spotlight Georgia's redistricting in 1992 with some documents from the J. Roy Rowland collection, so stay tuned.

Post by Nathaniel Ament-Stone, Student Worker, Russell Library

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