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Redrawing the Political Map

Posted on Dec 11, 2008
Truthdig / Peter Scheer

By Jeremiah Levine

(Page 2)

Florida and perhaps Minnesota are the only states with strong chances to pass reforms in the next several years. But Hebert sees an advantage on the horizon: “2011 will create some really bad examples [of gerrymanders], and we’ll have the opportunity to create some national buzz [against them].” Shortly thereafter, the California example will just be starting to prove to be a success or a failure, so it will be particularly salient.

Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, doesn’t believe California will catalyze state action. But he sees strong possibilities for redistricting coming from the federal government. McDonald notes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to “encourage states to form” independent redistricting commissions. “Obama has some background in election law,” said McDonald. “We could see Obama getting involved in election reform.”

Federal action could take several forms. McDonald and Hebert both believe the president-elect may use his bully pulpit to call for nonpartisan districts. Both also point out that Obama’s will be the first Democrat-run Justice Department to preside over a post-census redistricting since Harry Truman was president. McDonald expects to see more strict enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority districts and could be interpreted to disallow some gerrymanders. Due to a history of racially sensitive redistricting, all or part of 16 states are required to submit election district maps to the Justice Department for approval. Justice Department rulings on the maps of those 16 states have the potential to limit partisan cartography.

McDonald also sees possibilities for reform from Congress. While it has become a tradition for Congress to ignore the anti-gerrymandering bill perennially introduced by Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), McDonald believes the bill could gain traction if Obama brings attention to the issue. However, others are skeptical that Tanner’s bill will go anywhere. The House Judiciary Committee hasn’t held a hearing on gerrymandering in years. Any such hearing is likely to take place in the subcommittee on the Constitution. That subcommittee is chaired by New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, and while Nadler’s press secretary “would agree that gerrymandering is a problem,” that concern hasn’t amounted to action. Wrangling the committee to move would probably require Obama to expend precious political capital.


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State action would be piecemeal, and congressional action seems unlikely. A Supreme Court move, though, could have a sweeping effect. And “it’s possible,” says Sam Hirsch, the attorney who argued against DeLay’s district map in the Texas case.

If swinging the Supreme Court to action is possible, the hinge is Justice Anthony Kennedy. A Supreme Court majority requires five justices, and in the past, says Hirsch, “five justices have agreed that a strictly partisan gerrymander is unconstitutional.” The problem is that only four justices have agreed on the criteria for determining an unconstitutional gerrymander. Kennedy is the only justice who appears open to joining those four on a set of criteria. And if he does, a petitioner would still need to demonstrate that a particular partisan map distortion met those criteria. “I don’t see the case yet,” says Hirsch. “If I did, I’d take it. But the gerrymanders of 2011 and 2012 could produce that case.”

California could spur some state ballot initiative movements. The Obama administration could push for state or congressional action. The 2011 and 2012 gerrymanders may lead to increased demand for reform, and could even lead the Supreme Court to intervene. But is this what Americans really want?

Greater electoral competition sounds good. Yet more competitive elections mean that campaign money will be more important to more incumbents. So the greatest wellsprings of campaign money, including special interests, would be more powerful than ever.

Here is a (not very) hypothetical example. A particular member of Congress is a budget hawk with a safe seat. After a nonpartisan redistricting, the seat becomes competitive. Suddenly the incumbent, needing financial and political capital, has to cozy up to the biggest employer and political force in the district, which happens to be the defense contractor Lockheed Martin. All of a sudden, Lockheed’s federal budget-busting military aircraft sound like a great idea to the incumbent. Her ability to act as a budget hawk is gone. This is a more common scenario than one might think. Defense contractors intentionally spread out across the country in different districts for precisely this purpose—to influence as many representatives as possible. If more competitive elections cost more money, Lockheed, and politically powerful interests like it, will become even more influential.

What about the goal of bringing legislators toward ideological moderation with competitive general elections? Again, the notion sounds intriguing, but, Hebert says, when you “end up with more people in the middle, you end up with less people on the ends” of the political spectrum. Can America risk losing its few daring political voices? Regardless of whether one agrees with Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, their safe congressional seats allow them to challenge American political discourse in critical ways.

Experts disagree about California’s ripple effect. Many concur, though, that America now holds unprecedented potential for gerrymandering reform. After the 2011-2012 gerrymanders, that potential will build. Perhaps the greatest question is whether that momentum will be swept away in a storm of more urgent priorities.

Jeremiah Levine has managed and consulted on political campaigns at the federal, local, and state levels.

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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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