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Redrawing the Political Map

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Posted on Dec 11, 2008
Truthdig / Peter Scheer

By Jeremiah Levine

“I’m the majority leader, and I want more seats,” former U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay famously declared in 2003. DeLay got his seats—six more—by remapping Texas in the boldest gerrymander of modern American history.

Now, The Hammer’s legacy is in jeopardy. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully led the charge to pass California’s Proposition 11, which limits the kind of partisan gerrymandering that DeLay, and his Democratic counterparts, used to influence elections around America for decades.

In the past, California has been a national trailblazer when it has enacted broadly felt sentiments. Proposition 13 is the most famous such example, that being the property tax cap of 1978 that set off an anti-tax revolution across the country. Not every California proposition becomes a national model, but “the redistricting law in California is interesting,” says attorney and redistricting expert Sam Hirsh, “because it’s such a big and often trendsetting state.” He would know. A former campaign manager and Capitol Hill aide, Hirsh represented the Democratic Party’s national redistricting project in 2000, and argued before the Supreme Court against DeLay’s Texas map.

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing electoral districts so that one political party can maximize its number of seats in a given legislature. Typically, this creative cartography takes place in each state after the decennial census. Both congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn at those times.

The party in control of a legislature typically takes advantage of map-making. For example, a Democratic legislature will draw districts that spread out Republican voters, so that each district has more Democrats than Republicans. This doesn’t work for every district in a state, so the map-makers, in order to ensure a Democratic majority, end up settling for many districts that are safely Democratic and a few that are safely Republican.


Square, Site wide
The above scenario is precisely what has happened in California. In fact, the districts are so safe that in the 2004 election, when 153 seats were up for grabs in California’s congressional delegation and state Legislature, not one district changed parties. When a state has districts so strongly Democratic or Republican, the party primary becomes the venue for competition. The way to win party primaries is to tack far to the left or far to the right, and this pushes the candidates who win these primaries farther toward one end of the political spectrum. 

That abstract problem became a jolting reality this week in the state capital of Sacramento. “Without immediate action, our state is headed for a fiscal disaster,” Schwarzenegger told reporters. The Governator is not lying: Health care providers who rely on state payments have almost gone out of business recently because the state’s budget was so late California nearly had to stop paying bills. Gerrymandering is at the heart of the problem: Far left and far right legislators can’t compromise on the ideological hot buttons of raising taxes or cutting spending, so the state can’t plug its massive budget hole.

Around the nation, state leaders are watching California’s hyper-gerrymandered Legislature flail. If the Legislature functions much better once it is redistricted, California will exemplify a remarkable success story for nonpartisan districting. To be sure, a handful of states already have nonpartisan districts, but California’s national spotlight, and its dire situation, may make it the trendsetter.

So what would happen? If California does blaze a trail and redistricting catches on, how would a fairly districted America look? “No one has made that map,” admits Gerry Hebert, executive director of Americans for Redistricting Reform. Hebert was an attorney for the Democratic Party of Texas during DeLay’s 2003 redistricting maneuvers.

No one knows for sure what would happen if, for example, America had 400 competitive congressional elections in a single election cycle. A few experts even argue that nonpartisan redistricting wouldn’t produce many more competitive elections. For example, Alan Abramowitz of Emory University argues that gerrymandering doesn’t make a big difference. Abramowitz asserts that the biggest decreases in electoral competition happen between redistricting cycles, largely because of complex demographic shifts.

It is almost certain, though, that comprehensive nonpartisan redistricting would lead to major changes in the partisan makeups of some states’ congressional delegations and legislatures. DeLay’s heavily gerrymandered Texas, for example, would see a dramatic change. Hebert points to Florida as another state where a nonpartisan map would yield a big partisan swing. The Sunshine State is politically moderate, but Republican gerrymanders have led to two-thirds control of the Legislature. Undoing that gerrymander would mean a significant partisan rebalancing. Examples like Texas, Florida and California suggest that even a few states ending gerrymandering would make a meaningful difference in the makeup of Congress and state governments. The end of gerrymandering could also affect legislators even if it didn’t replace them: Hard-core partisans are often pushed toward the center by competitive elections, even if they win.

With California leading the way, there are myriad reasons to foresee state-level success against gerrymandering in the coming years. Hebert points to states with an initiative process, “because self-interested legislators aren’t likely to give up power.” Florida and Ohio, like California, have the initiative process. A poorly structured ballot initiative for redistricting failed in Ohio, and a similar effort recently failed in Florida as well. But Florida political operatives may try again to pass a redistricting initiative in 2010. Moreover, operatives who run anti-gerrymandering ballot initiatives learn from each effort: “The California efforts succeeded because they included interest groups like minorities groups concerned about losing legislative representation,” says Hebert. He expects future efforts to replicate the tactic.

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By Mike Caetano, December 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In my view, the redistricting issue in California is pushed primarily by Republicans who believe they are actually in the majority out here. This allows them to feel as if they’ve been robbed of their entitlement. The facts don’t matter to them in this regard. Their sense of persecution is everything. For more on this, dig into the redistricting fights of the 1990’s and the two years the Republicans took charge of the lower house of the Legislature.

A deeper structural problem that is rarely touched on is the fact that the number of representatives in the Legislature out here hasn’t changed since the 1860’s. That’s right. It has almost been 150 years since the Legislature in California was expanded. There are roughly 36 million people in California and only 120 members of the Legislature - 80 in the Assembly and 40 in the Senate. To even begin to achieve parity with other states (or Canada which has a similar population size) the number of representatives would have to be doubled, if not tripled. Of course, there’s so much hatred for the Legislature out here and ignorance of how Legislative power functions, that expanding the number of seats is seen as a reward rather than a punishment and this attitude prevents this needed reform from ever being discussed. It’s a shame. Worse, it’s evidence of a widespread lack of understanding of the structural principles of representative democracy.

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By Louise, December 14, 2008 at 9:07 am Link to this comment

Glad you all enjoyed it, I did too. Laughed so hard the first time I read it I had to save it! So to whoever wrote it [and I have no idea who] Thanks! smile

Once when I was lost in the wild woodland gardens of New Jersey, I discovered the mind-set is as much about isolation as location.

It was dark and raining and I was beginning to think maybe I had taken a wrong turn. I saw a light twinkling down in the woods, so I pulled off the hi-way and drove down toward the light.

There next to the road was a small motel, with a tiny store in the office and a single gas pump out front. [Shades of psycho? I actually did look around for a hill with a spooky old house on top, but saw nothing but trees.]

I went inside and there was a gentleman in overalls standing behind the counter. I asked him if he could tell me how long it would take to get to Manhattan. His response was, “Nope.”

Using gestures, I tried again. “Well can you tell me If I’m on the right hi-way if I stay on this hi-way heading that way?”

Again, “Nope.”

“Well can you tell me approximately how far from here, Manhattan is?”


“You don’t know?”


This guy was not a talker, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. The one thing I knew for sure was I couldn’t be more than forty or fifty miles away. So I asked, “Well can you give me some idea how long it took you to get there, last time you went?”

“Nope,” he responded, “aint never been there.”

“You live this close to Manhattan and you’ve never been there?” I asked, somewhat incredulous.

“Aint never been there, aint never goin.” He responded.

“Why?” I asked.

“Cause it’s evil.”

So I bought a candy bar ... didn’t want to wait while he brewed some coffee ... and went back to “heading that way.”

Shortly I found the right hi-way and within what seemed like a few minutes, I knew the bridge wasn’t far away.

That was [oh my gosh] twenty years ago! Seems like yesterday, but that’s probably because it was one of those classic moments in time you never forget. The little town that had the little motel probably had a name, but I don’t remember it. I just remember a man who lived less than an hour from Manhattan who was afraid to go there because, “it’s evil.”

Maybe that town has been gobbled up by subdivisions since then, Maybe I couldn’t find it again if I tried. But I suspect there are still folks there who are afraid to go to the “evil” big city. In fact I had a good friend who’s husband worked in Manhattan who was afraid to go there! She lived in Fairlawn. But they’re both dems. smile

So isolation and fear can affect a persons ability to think clearly, but not always their ability to figure out which party represents bad government. Although Fairlawn isn’t really all that isolated. Certainly NOTHING like ANYTHING in Texas!

This reminds me of the time I got lost in Pennsylvania. When I finally spotted a town, drove down and asked a man in a hardware store where I was and how to get out of here. He responded, “There is no way out of here.”

But that’s another story. wink

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By cyrena, December 13, 2008 at 9:32 pm Link to this comment

THANKS Louise!! smile I ditto samosamo. I enjoyed that more than you can imagine. And the super kicker was the last paragraph about keeping the good pot. That knocked me right off of my chair. smile

On a far more serious note, I STILL live with the effects of having spent 17 years of my life in a red state mentality location. And in MY case, I at least had unlimited opportunities to get out of there frequently enough.  But imagine the ones who never see or experience anything but red-state mentality. It’s REALLLLY SOMETHING!!!

In fact, I’ll never forget an incident from way back in the early 80’s. Just in the course of conversation with a co-worker at the D/FW airport, I asked him if he’d ever been to a particular city or state, (I can’t remember which) and he answered with a question, “Why would I want to leave Texas?”

And no. That was NOT an isolated moron. It’s pretty much the standard mentality there, at least among the seeming majority. I say ‘seeming’ if only because it’s obviously not the entire state. Still, there’s enough of them, and that becomes the mentality that holds political sway. Or maybe I should say the mentality that never changes. (When is the last time Texas put a Democrat in the White House?)

I don’t know if redistricting or reform will address that, but I’m considering it in sociologist format only, without the full match to political theory. So, I dunno. We’ll see I guess.

There’s no denying how bad things are in California right now, because it’s a flippin’ nightmare GRIDLOCK. As much as I do now and have always despised Schwartzie, I can’t logically blame him for ALL of this, though he’s certainly contributed to the disaster just because he’s a republican, and that (repig) agenda is paramount for him. I can’t blame him because this has been a problem for California for many years, even pre-dating the Terminator.

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By Dennis, December 12, 2008 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I don’t accept the general thesis that districts are gerrymandered to the point that they are either far left and/ or far right.
I certainly am aware of the behavior of Delay and the conservatives in the 2000 cesus taking.
I dare say, as far as the far left, I don’t recall that the Dem’s had many communist leaning represenatives in their districts, which most people with a modicum of sence knows represents the far left. What we get , and I’m not sugesting it should be any different, is what we end up with is the far right and a Democratic makeup of cenralist. if we are forunate we occationally end up with a Bernie Sanders, or a David Bonier.

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By JNagarya, December 12, 2008 at 6:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Levine is a Stud!

That may be—though I don’t see how it is a positive political image, or activity.  I do see that it does nothing to improve upon his knowledge of history or his writing about political realities and processes which have existed for centuries—not for merely a few “decades”.

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By samosamo, December 12, 2008 at 4:34 pm Link to this comment

By Louise, December 12 at 11:46 am

Beautiful, Louise, Beautiful!

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By Jesse Salomon, December 12, 2008 at 3:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Levine is a Stud!

How do I know?  He managed my campaign for the State Senate in Washington State before he bailed to go manage a congressional race for Peter Goldmark.  Two years later Goldmark has won state wide office (and I, nothing). Anyways, we all know Jeremiah is going places.

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By Louise, December 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm Link to this comment

This article and the map reminded me of an email I received just before the election, so I dug it up.

Enjoy! smile

Dear Red States:
If you manage to steal this election too we’ve decided we’re leaving.  We intend to form our own country, and we’re taking the other Blue States with us. In case you aren’t aware, that includes California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and all the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country of New California.
To sum up briefly:
You get Texas, Oklahoma and all the slave states.
We get stem cell research and the best beaches.
We get the Statue of Liberty. 
You get Dollywood. 
We get Intel and Microsoft. 
You get WorldCom.
We get Harvard.
You get Ole’ Miss.
We get 85% of America’s venture capital and entrepreneurs.
You get Alabama. 
We get two-thirds of the tax revenue, you get to make the red states pay their fair share.
Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22% lower than the Christian Coalition’s, we get a bunch of happy families.
You get a bunch of single moms.
Please be aware that Nuevo California will be pro-choice and anti-war,  and we’re going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once.. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals. They have kids they’re apparently willing to send to their deaths for no purpose, and they don’t care if you don’t show pictures of their children’s caskets coming home. We do wish you success in Iraq , and hope that the WMDs turn up, but we’re not willing to spend our resources in Bush’s Quagmire.
With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80% of the country’s fresh water, more than 90% of the pineapple and lettuce, 92% of the nation’s fresh fruit, 95% of America’s quality wines, 90% of all cheese, 90% of the high tech industry, 95% of the corn and soybeans (thanks Iowa!), most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT.
With the Red States, on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88% of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92% of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100% of the tornadoes, 90% of the hurricanes, 99% of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100% of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University, Clemson and the University of Georgia.
We get Hollywood and Yosemite, thank you.
Additionally, 38% of those in the Red states believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale, 62% believe life is sacred unless we’re discussing the war, the death penalty or gun laws, 44% say that evolution is only a theory, 53% believe that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and 61% of you crazy bastards believe you are people with higher morals then we lefties.
Finally, we’re taking the good pot, too. You can have that dirt weed they grow in Mexico
Peace out,
Blue States

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By JNagarya, December 12, 2008 at 11:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the kind of partisan gerrymandering . . . used to influence elections around America for decades.

Some history for the expert who wrote this article:

“Gerrymandering” is named for Elbridge Gerry, a career politician from the Founding era.  Among acts for which he was/is famous—aside from “inventing” Gerrymandering in Massachusetts-Bay in order to retain his House seat—was his refusal, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, with two others, to sign the Constitution because it didn’t have a Bill of Rights.

He was thereafter member of the first Congress under the newly ratified Constitution, which (when not busy with more important matters) debated and framed the Bill of Rights.

So, though asserting that “partisan gerrymandering” has gone on “for decades” isn’t inaccurate, it tends to give a cast of recent vintage to the act which is absolutely false.

In other words: it is always dangerous to write about current political realities and events while being ignorant of the commonplace nature or occurance of such, though I raalize the sinning is on the side of keeping the rabble roused up, and thus coming back for more of the same.

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By Dave Schwab, December 12, 2008 at 5:44 am Link to this comment

Primaries are not usually won by tacking hard right or hard left. They are most often won, like general elections, by politicians who can raise more money and call in more political favors than their opponents. By hauling in the pork for their big donors and paychecks for political allies, they entrench themselves in their seats. Getting reelected becomes much more important than distractions like public policy or passing a budget on time.
The problem is not that gerrymandering encourages polarization, it’s that gerrymandering kills accountability. Independent redistricting is a great start, but we shouldn’t be satisfied until we elect our legislatures by proportional representation to make them truly representative.

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By samosamo, December 12, 2008 at 1:33 am Link to this comment

I can see a need for redistricting when populations shift and but most of this redistricting(gerrymandering) is bullshit politics to allow those elected to act as if they are working on some vastly important project when all it is is an attempt to game the system.
Surely there is an equatable way of slicing up states without wasting a bunch of time that could be spent on real issues such as the economy, healthcare, evironmental pollution and degradation and proper governing at all levels where of late the spate of arrests of elected representatives of the people from local to state to the national level has been increasing which takes even more time and resources away from proper governing.
Being politics, not much will change though.

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By Joseph, December 11, 2008 at 10:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have come to the opinion,
that to err is human,
to forgive is divine.
to be crooked public servant,
bullet to the back of the head saves time,
a message that all will “get”.

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By Ham-Archy, December 11, 2008 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment

Gerrymandering is simply a dead tactic and a moot point now that California representatives have been emboldened by Nancy Pelosi to blatantly ignore their constituents. Nancy Pelosi blocked the impeachment of George W. Bush despite the fact that her San Francisco Co. constituents were the most vocal nationwide in their demand for his removal from office and subsequent indictments on war crimes.
Why waste the money and effort toward a complete farce, Representative Government, when your budget has been devastated by incompetency.

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By nrobi, December 11, 2008 at 9:34 am Link to this comment

I am a former resident of the infamously gerrymandered state of Florida.
One such seat that would fall to the real redistricting of Florida, is the seat that was created for Alcee Hastings, the only federal judge ever removed from the bench for high crimes and misdemeanors. Yes, Alcee Hastings was impeached and then elected by a clear majority of the people of a district that is at some points only 15 feet wide. His district would not stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of withstanding any sort of legal change and he would be out on his ass as far as the House of Representatives would go.
I for one, would like to see contiguous districts that made sense and did not extend 50-100 miles and include some points that were only 15 feet wide.
Surely, the American people are fed up with partisan backbiting and partisan redistricting every 10 years.
If this is so, then the power to redistrict every state should be given to a non-partisan board and done in a manner that does not favour one party or another.
Given the likelihood of this happening, America needs permanent and non-partisan elections in the state races, no one party should control a state for long periods of time such as the Republican party has done in Florida. You ask why this is? Because the Grand Orgy Party, has redistricted the state Congressional seats to their advantage for the last 20 years.
I am not a fan of the type of partisan politics that is played by any party that chooses to use power to their own advantage.  Would to all that is holy that people would give up their own advantage and race to power and see to it that fair and reasonable elections could and should happen.  LOL! This is never going to happen in my lifetime.

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