Baker vs. Carr

Why do House Republicans have more voters than the Democrats?

In 1992 the Democrats in the state House redrew legislator boundaries and put 12 Republican members in six districts, thereby eliminating six incumbent Republicans. If they had not done it, the Republicans would have taken over the state House in 1994 instead of achieving a majority in 2008.

You will remember 1994 saw a Republican tsunami electing two U.S. Senators, five Congressmen, and the governor. The Republicans came within five seats of taking the House in 1994 and the six they lost in redistricting would have given them a majority.

In 2002 the session was rocked by the income tax vote. The session ran into June before a budget with a sales tax increase passed. It was not possible to roil the House any further with massive redistricting. They were also looking for income tax voters. There was no wholesale change in districts.

This is not to say the numbers are fair. Just that they aren’t as egregious as they might have been. Statewide vote totals reveal there are more Republican voters than Democratic voters, so how then have Democrats retained majorities in the House and even now have only a one-vote difference?

The ideal number of voters in each House district is 57,468 per the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote ruling in Baker vs. Carr. (That was a 1962 Tennessee case, children; drawing funny district lines has a storied history in Tennessee.)

Since we do not live in a perfect world, the Justice Department allows a little leeway over or under the ideal when creating a district. If you add up the voters in Republican and Democratic districts you find the Republicans have almost 100,000 more people in their districts than the Democrats. It is possible that a computer redistricting program could redraw the lines and add two new Republican-leaning House seats.

When you consider how many House seats last November were decided by less than 500 votes, you begin to see that the size of the districts matter. Grouping the Democrats in smaller districts give them more representatives per capita than the Republicans. In some places in Tennessee it’s getting harder to find enough Democrats for a safe seat.

Of the 50 Republican seats, 23 of them have over 1,000 more voters than the ideal. In 17 of these, Republican seats there are 2,000 to 2,500 over the ideal.

In Knox County, for instance, Republican state Reps. Ryan Haynes, Stacey Campfield, Bill Dunn, Harry Brooks, and Frank Niceley each have at least 2,600 more voters than the ideal. In the two Democratic seats, Rep. Joe Armstrong is right on the mark and Rep. Harry Tindell is 1,100 over the average. What happens to the Democrats if the 13,000 excess Republican voters are put into a Democratic district?

Statewide there are 22 of 49 Democratic seats that have over 1,000 fewer voters than the ideal, and 13 of these have totals over 2,000 voters less than the ideal. There are 15 with districts with at least 1,000 voters over the ideal.

The disparity is not as great these days because Republicans now occupy some of the districts drawn for Democrats in 2002. Republican state Rep. Josh Evans has a district with over 3,000 fewer voters than the ideal. But when it was drawn, it was represented by Democratic Majority Leader Gene Davidson. That’s how the Democrats used to keep seats in the “collar” counties around Nashville, which generally vote Republican. Republican Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, also near Nashville, has a district with almost 2,000 fewer voters than the average, but it is the seat which used to belong to Democratic Rep. Frank Buck.

The Republicans are likely to lose a seat in 2010 and also lose control. The Democrats can then redraw the lines and continue hegemony for another decade.

Here’s an idea: Nothing prevents House Speaker Kent Williams from forming a study committee this summer and passing a redistricting plan next session and give the Republicans a better shot at two more seats in the 2010 election.

It’s fair. It’s legal. And they don’t even have to put 12 Democrats in six Democratic districts to do it. Just go by the numbers.

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