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Drawing districts: Why constituents should care

Bill McCamley

“We are in the business of rigging elections.” – Former State Sen. Mark McDaniel (R-North Carolina)

Warning: Before you read this article, know that the topic of redistricting can be extremely boring. Yet it is also one of the most important fundamentals to democracy in the United States and is happening right now at the local, state and federal level.

What is redistricting? Generally, every 10 years (when the results of the census are reported) governmental bodies redraw the lines of the districts that determine which person represents which geographic area. This is done from the city council and school board level all the way to U.S. Congress, and happens because, to put it very simply, people move and populations grow. If we didn’t redraw these lines, some representatives would end up representing very few people, while others would represent many more. That is not fair for either the representatives or the constituents living in those bigger areas.

Though necessary, the process has been used since the nation’s founding to favor one group over another.

As an example, let’s say you are a group of vegetarians who have been in power for a while (creating laws favoring the serving of hummus and lentils), but there is a growing meat eating community in your state located in a city center (interested in a more pro-steak policy). However, they are surrounded by a slightly larger population of vegetarians living in the suburbs. Two districts must split the area. So the vegetarians in power divide the district in half leaving a minority of meat eaters in each district, therefore decreasing the chance any of them will be elected. This process is called cracking.

Or, a group of dog owners in a state has traditionally had power and spent time and money on pro-dog public policy issues (fire hydrants, squeaky toys, Milk Bones, etc.). However there is a growing cat-owning population in one city, and they are much more concerned about their issues (laser pointers, scratching posts, catnip, and so on). This population is getting so big that it is impossible to crack them effectively. If there are three districts, however, the dog owners in power can still curb the cat lobby influence by drawing a circle around the cat owning population and limiting that area to only one likely pro-cat representative, leaving the other two districts representing a majority of dog-owners. This process is called packing.


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Gerrymandering

Packing and cracking are both examples of gerrymandering, a term that comes from a district drawn in Massachusetts during the early 1800s by a Governor named Elbridge Gerry. In many cases, gerrymandering can create lines that look like something put on a refrigerator by a proud parent of a kindergartner.

In today’s political environment, gerrymandering is generally used to create advantages for a political party and protect incumbents. Computer technology has made professional demographers very good at using census information to predict the results of future elections using packing and cracking.

There are many reasons this can be bad for democracy. First off, it leads to a reduction in competitive elections. For instance, there are 435 representatives in Congress. In most years over 350 run in “safe” seats, meaning that only 20 percent of representatives face any sort of competition. This creates:

  • Less participation in elections. (Why vote if you are already pretty sure who is going to get elected?)
  • Less complete representation. (Fewer people turning out means party stalwarts who vote in primaries are more influential than the public at large.)
  • Less accountability. (If representatives are assured of election, why bother listening to their constituents?)
  • More partisanship. (There is no reason to moderate a vote if the only people you are trying to please are more likely on the extremes of your own party.)

Putting the power in the hands of citizen committees

Over the years, some bodies have tried to implement changes to the redistricting practices so that more representative districts are drawn. This generally puts more power for drawing lines in to the hands of citizen committees instead of the bodies that stand to benefit from the redistricting process.

They vary from simple advisory boards to a recent California decision that completely striped the Legislature of redistricting power and placed it in the hands of a commission of citizen volunteers picked through an exhaustive process, with their recently released initial map drawing many incumbents out of their districts.

In New Mexico, the City of Albuquerque has had a redistricting committee for the last 30 years, while Las Cruces and Doña Ana County are currently experimenting with similar advisory boards. These committees educate themselves and the public on how redistricting processes work, get input from interested citizens on concerns regarding community changes, and make recommendations to their respective boards on how new districts should be drawn to accurately and fairly represent their populations.

The mayors, councilors, and commissioners from these areas should be congratulated for delegating responsibility for redistricting to more neutral boards that do not stand to directly benefit from the process.

When Henry Ford originally sold the Model T, he once said that his customers could “have any color they want as long as it’s black.” While that may work for a private company, it is terrible model for representative government. Unless voters have real, actual options to consider in an election, public officials become less accountable and our democracy is greatly weakened. For that reason, voters of all political stripes and across all parties should come together and demand that it stop.

Bill McCamley is a former Doña Ana County commissioner, is currently employed with ROJO Apparel (a Las Cruces clothing company), and was recently the chair of the Las Cruces Ad-Hoc Citizens Redistricting Committee.

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8 comments so far. Scroll down to submit your own comment.

  1. Dr. J.,

    Your dichotomy between listening and everything else is complicated by your admitted misuse of the word, which concerned voting, not power. The rest of what you say is based on invidious presumptions about me when, in fact, you know virtually nothing about me. Your status as a minority, etc, gives you no right to such presumptions, anymore than anyone else would be entitled to prejudices about you. Your anger is no surprise to me if I think of you as a member of a minority, but it justifies nothing. I say no more.

  2. Dr. Hays, by definition:
    dis•en•fran•chise
    verb /ˌdisenˈfranCHīz/ 
    disenfranchised, past participle; disenfranchised, past tense; disenfranchises, 3rd person singular present; disenfranchising, present participle

    1.Deprive (someone) of the right to vote
    - the law disenfranchised some 3,000 voters on the basis of a residence qualification

    2.Deprived of power; marginalized
    - a hard core of kids who are disenfranchised and don’t feel connected to the school

    3.Deprive (someone) of a right or privilege
    - a measure which would disenfranchise people from access to legal advice

    4.Deprive (someone) of the rights and privileges of a free inhabitant of a borough, city, or country

    I was using it as in definition #2, certainly a very standard use of the term. When you are a minority by education, wealth, ethnicity, culture, sometimes language, and always political world view, this is the proper use of the term. And I would remind you that listening vs. hearing/understanding/empathizing and thoughtfully incorporating diverse and thus differing views from your own are quite distinctly different things. I used the wrong word, sorry for the confusion. You would never change your views based on anything I say, and you have your own “good” reasons for that, well explained from your opinions and worldview. This is no different that my elected reps, but it is still not making me feel enfranchised by my political system reps when nothing changes.

  3. I hate to disappoint everyone who is so intensively involved in all the meetings etc, but if the past is prologue to our future… the state office redistricting will be finalized here in NM by the courts. The legislature and the governor are sure not to agree, much less the partisans within the legislature itself.

    Local re-districting on the other hand … citizen involvement may actually make a greater difference.

  4. Dr. J., I have no idea how to respond effectively to your latest comments. No, I do not agree with the answer implied by your first question. The rest seems to deny that anyone can be fair-minded–a view which I reject–and affirm the need for enclaves of people similar to one another in some important way–a view which I also reject. The are so many ways by which minorities can be marginalized, and grouping them together can be one of them. I can do nothing about your feelings, especially since you your continued use of the word “disenfranchised” in a non-standard way suggests a personal response unreachable by ordinary discourse. I do sympathize with minorities and being a member of a minority, but I accord minorities or a member of a minority no special considerations without better reason than hurt feelings. Finally, your statement that “Diversity is wonderful and necessary, but it doesn’t work in our political system, nobody listens if they disagree with you” seems confused; I cannot put the front end together with the back end. I think that I could analyze it and show that it reflects a lack of commitment to democracy but also something closer to home and harder to deal with in a blog thread. Finally, speaking personally, I usually disagree with you, sometimes tartly, but I do listen to you, and my reasons for disagreeing with you reflect, I hope, that I listen to you.

  5. Dr. Hays, would you agree that one person’s gerrymanderng is another’s perfect district to represent their views? It depends on which side of the political spectrum you reside vis-a-vis the majority who always elect reps. I see nothing wrong with putting like people together to form a coherent, like-minded community or district. I would not call that gerrymandering. My definition of gerrymandering is to marginalize a minority by sticking them into a majority that doesn’t represent their views soley to take them away from their like-minded brothers and sisters in another district. I have been on both ends in my life, I am currently marginalized as a minority so that I cannot be in a district of like-minded people. It makes me feel unrepresented and disenfranchised wrt the political system, since to matter what I do or say my reps will not listen to me or represent my views. How else should I feel? Diversity is wonderful and necessary, but it doesn’t work in our political system, nobody listens if they disagree with you.

  6. Dr. J., you write: “When you find yourself in a district where the elected representative doesn’t even come close to representing your views, you know you have been a victim of this gerrymandering.” Really?

    Could it be that “you” live in a swing district, with a Republican one term and a Democrat another term? If not, could it be that the “you” are simply a member of the losing minority in the district?

    In elections, some voters elect their candidate and win, and other voters fail to elect their candidate and lose. No redistricting can make everyone a winner. God could not adjust boundaries so that the elected representative represented every voter’s views.

    Your underlying belief that, in a perfect world with objective people in it–God made no such world or people—everyone can be a winner–it is so la-la-land! I can understand the disparity between such a belief and the reality can cause disillusionment and dyspepsia. But voting for a losing candidate and finding that the winning candidate does not represent your views is not what anyone except perhaps you would call disenfranchisement.

    As one who is now sitting on my second school redistricting committee, I have a sense that citizens could work honorably toward redistricting of voters along lines of agreed-upon and prioritized principles like diversity of interests, contiguity of geography, socio-economic balance, etc. Gerrymandering comes when districts are designed to serve one party–evident in results which reflect a very different set of standards.

  7. Enjoyed this thoughtful article on redistricting and its importance. Here is an overview of redistricting in New Mexico by the New Mexico Legislative Council Service.

    http://www.nmlegis.gov/lcs/redcensus/docs/187014.pdf

  8. This all sounds good, but of course we all know these “citizen” boards are gerrymandered just as badly as the districts will be under elected officials allied to these cherry-picked boards. A phrase like “get input from interested citizens ” just shows that politically motivated persons with special interests and no broad objectivity are the ones involved in these alleged “citizen” advisory groups. They are not to be trusted by the real citizens to be objective and act in the interest of all citizens. When you find yourself in a district where the elected representative doesn’t even come close to representing your views, you know you have been a victim of this gerrymandering, by the bogus “boards” or the elected legislative people in power. You become disenfranchised and unrepresented in government.

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