Gallery 2

Drawing The Lines

Gallery 2 - Page 3
Gallery 2-Page 2

Voter Redistricting Wars About To Begin

By James Donahue

The U.S. Supreme Court’s “One man, one vote” decision in 1964 launched a complex ritual of political gerrymandering that changes the boundaries of voting districts from local school board and city councils to all county, state and federal offices in every state in the union.

The fighting, arguing and political wheeling and dealing that goes on, usually in county courthouses and state capitals is not easily understood by the public even if news reporters are watching and trying to explain the significance of these events. This is because the process is done by committee and it usually takes days to accomplish.

The court rulings in the cases of Reynolds vs. Sims and Wesberry vs. Sanders held that political districts of unequal population resulted in under-representation of some people’s interests. To meet the standards set by the Constitution, the court ruled that voting districts had to be reapportioned so that each had approximately equal population.

Before the 1964 ruling, redistricting laws required a restructuring of U.S. Congressional and Senate districts, based upon population shifts every ten years. The one-man, one-vote decision, however, created a whole new way of doing business right down to the grass roots of governments across the land.

It took a couple of years for state and local governments to decide just how to accomplish such an order, and to do it fairly. Even at that, the practice of gerrymandering, or cleverly dividing districts to give one party a voting edge in some districts and weakening the voting strength of an opposing party, has crept into the process. That is because more populated industrial centers tend to vote Democratic while other more rural and agricultural areas and senior citizen centers have traditionally leaned to the Republican Party.

As a young reporter covering county government in those days, I watched the process and struggled trying to write news reports that readers could understand. It involved using the latest census statistics for the county, and then appointing a special Redistricting Committee comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, and letting them go at it.

The process quickly turned into a numbers game. Members would show up at the meetings each day with various maps dividing the county and cities into precincts with a relatively equal number of people recorded as living in them. Of course the census count did not distinguish between party affiliations or between voters and non-voters. The local people with their heads deep in the political game, however, had a good idea on how to divide the county so it gave their party an advantage on Election Day.

I sat faithfully in on those meetings, sometimes for as long as a week and listening to committee members debate the pros and cons of dividing the districts in a variety of ways. When the final redistricting plan was approved, some of the boundaries were placed in strange places. Sometimes neighborhoods were split between which side of the road the homes were located. Some cities, villages and townships were split into various districts, which created a lot of additional work for the local clerks and election workers.

The school districts, which often overlap county lines, were also caught up in reapportionment. The redistricting plans approved by each county are sent to the state legislators, who incorporate them in their own planning. Eventually a master reapportioned plan is approved a final state-wide map of established voting districts. Some states had different methods and rules for going about redistricting but the process, beginning at a grass-roots level, was basically the same. When all of the district lines were finalized, voters were often left confused as to just who the candidates were for the district they lived in.

Once going through the initial struggle of drawing acceptable dividing lines separating all of the different voting districts within a state, all of the counties, school districts and the cities, the people assigned the responsibility realized in horror that this would not be the end of it. Because people moved around, there had to be reapportionment decisions made and the lines redrawn every ten years, immediately following the national census. This was going to be a regular event set to happen at the start of every new decade.

And this, dear readers, is what is about to happen once more because the 2010 census results are just now being published, and 2011 is the year of the next redistricting fight. Even though the process is complicated and difficult for folks to understand, it has become a vital part of the nation’s election process and needs to be watched closely.

We are going through the trouble of explaining all of this because most major newspapers tend to ignore the committee work, if not the in-depth operations of local and county governments. Consequently, we urge every citizen that really cares about the future of the nation to personally attend the redistricting meetings when they are held. If your local newspaper or television news station doesn’t tell you when they are going to be occurring, call the county clerk’s office.

All government meetings are required by law to be open to the public, although the public usually ignores them. If you choose to attend, do not be afraid to ask questions so you are as informed as possible about everything that is going on.

When the public gets involved, the problem of gerrymandering either is diminished or gets well hidden within the obscurity of the district splits.