In a democracy our legislators should work for us, not the other way around. Redistricting needs reform.
With Congress deadlocked, pundits have been pointing fingers every which way at potential culprits for the lack of congeniality in Washington.
Many of the targets are individual members of Congress. But a little-understood phenomenon, not a person, is sharing much of the blame for the root causes of partisan polarization and the inability to pass major legislation. It’s called gerrymandering, and it happens when legislators redraw district boundaries for political gain.
If you’ve ever looked at a map that shows voting district boundaries, you’ve probably noticed a sea of squiggly, oddly shaped formations. The creation of those boundaries, or redistricting, happens decennially, following the census and delivery of reapportionment numbers (how many congressional seats have been gained, held, and lost by each state) to state governments.
Legislators should be redrawing district lines to correct for population shifts that occur over the course of the decade and to ensure that all Americans receive equal representation. But more and more often, they’re not.
Most point to the 1812 signing of a legislative plan by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s (hence “gerry”mandering) that packed opposition Federalists into a salamander-shaped district as the opening salvo in our country’s redistricting wars. But it’s been going on for much longer: Patrick Henry conveniently forgot all about that liberty/death pledge and ably sliced James Madison’s home out of the Virginia congressional district the future president had hoped to run in.
Though most scholars agree that there is little, if any, causal relationship between redistricting and levels of partisanship, voters are right to challenge the unfair process.
By allowing legislators to participate in the mapping process that determines who runs and who gets elected, redistricting effectively upends the crucial relationship between representative and represented.
We’ve gotten to the point where our legislators don’t work for us; we work for them.