Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Redistricting, Gerrymandering and the Constitution

May 19, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


It subtracts nothing from the intrinsic drama of the killing of Osama bin Laden to notice that one reason the story has been so riveting is that the domestic issues vying with it for national attention are so eye-glazing.

Issue number 1, of course, is the federal budget deficit, which is heating up again as a vote on the debt ceiling approaches in Congress in the next few months. Another issue, less likely to attract attention but equally consequential for years to come, is political redistricting.

As you probably learned in school, redistricting occurs every 10 years as congressional boundaries are redrawn after the Census. What you may have forgotten is that it’s required by the Constitution.

The relevant passage is Article I, Section 2.

The idea behind redistricting is simple: To apportion political power fairly there should be roughly the same number of constituents represented in any given congressional district. But drawing political maps to achieve that outcome is tricky, and critics say, is subject to abuse.

Here in Pennsylvania, Republicans control the state legislature and governor’s mansion and will be able to draw the new congressional district lines. Pennsylvania is losing one of its 19 congressional seats this year. So Republican lawmakers will be looking for ways to cut down to 18 districts that benefit their party.

Political observers have identified two principal options: One is to draw a district in the Pittsburgh area that pits two Democratic incumbents against one another. The other is to dismantle a Democratic incumbent’s district near Harrisburg by dividing it among nearby Republican districts.

Redrawing district lines is one of the “dark arts” of politics

Redrawing district lines is one of the “dark arts” of politics and a staple source of partisan conflict as politicians redraw lines to benefit incumbents and elect members of their own party. Reformers advocate turning the process over to independent bipartisan commissions. But as in Pennsylvania, most states allow state legislators to draw the lines, a process that is inherently political and universally contentious. In Nevada last Saturday, amid mutual accusations of partisan intent, the Republican governor vetoed a redistricting bill passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature.|topnews|text|Local%20News  

One of the oldest tricks in the book is a partisan “gerrymander,” a term that comes from a famous case of redistricting in Massachusetts in 1812. The governor at the time, Elbridge Gerry, who earlier had served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, signed a map into law that included a district shaped like a salamander. Critics called the oddly shaped district a “gerrymander” and the term stuck.

Teacher's corner

As this article indicates, redistricting is not a new practice. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several decisions over the course of 40 years. What are the legal parameters for redistricting?

For an up-to-date immersion in the redistricting process, you can play The Redistricting Game, an online simulation that allows you to try your hand at drawing political district lines in three different states.

In the aftermath of the Bin Laden killing, it may not be as riveting as the new SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALS, but it’s a fascinating introduction to a process that will help determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential election and set the political battle-lines in every state for the next decade.


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