Redistricting is one of the ugliest processes in our democracy. Last month, a leaked map scowled from the back room where Republicans are cooking up new voting districts. It divvied Nashville into thirds, breaking up U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper’s Democratic base and also appeared to favor the Congressional ambitions of state Sen. Bill Ketron (R - Murfreesboro), who sits on a three-member committee charged with drawing up new state Senate and U.S. House districts.
The map was created by an out-of-state fan of Ketron’s Tea Party politics, and Republicans deny it is being considered. Still, it is a reminder of how big a role personal and partisan politics play in redistricting.
The federal Constitution requires reapportionment after each census to assure that each member of Congress represents approximately the same number of citizens. Unfortunately, the Constitution offers little guidance on how to accomplish this task, and the courts have been slow to pick up the slack.
The only firm rules are that communities dominated by racial minorities must be kept intact, and populations of districts cannot vary by more than 10 percent. This void of guidance has given political parties, which the Constitution does not mention nor empower, the chance to seize control of the process.
Whichever party controls the state Legislature after a census controls district boundaries, and partisan motives have yielded absurdly shaped districts such as state Rep. Frank Niceley’s, which contains a chunk of Jefferson County, a long, thin segment of Strawberry Plains Pike, South Knox County and Sequoyah Hills.
State law requires counties to create districts that respect geographical and demographic groupings, and the work of county redistricting committees is subject to the Sunshine Law. As a result, city and county districts have fairly natural shapes that reflect real communities. State lawmakers do not hold themselves to the same standards. They should.
In June, News Sentinel Nashville bureau chief Tom Humphrey outlined the sordid history of redistricting in Tennessee and said, “redistricting is totally based on insider dealing by legislators with zero input from average residents.” Democrats controlled the process for more than a century, and Republicans are now eager for payback.
In the recent past, Tennessee’s federal representatives have redrawn their districts, but this time around state legislators have taken control of the task. Though most states have already proposed or even decided on new district lines, Tennessee has done nothing more than name committee members and will not convene until January.
Republican leader Beth Harwell promised a request for public input would go up on the Legislature’s website “after Labor Day,” but it is not there as of this writing. Ketron and Rep. Steve McDaniel have hinted that they may not unveil proposed maps until the Legislature is in session, and a quick vote could give the public little time to review and react to changes. This delay would also leave little time for courts to resolve legal challenges prior to the April filing deadline for candidates.
Party bigwigs normally attempt to create as many winnable districts as they can, but incumbents also do things like move potential challengers out of their district. Ugliest, however, is the disrespect shown to citizens and communities as they are shuffled around and haggled over in secret dealings.
There is a way to stop the shenanigans. Mathematicians can handle these sorts of issues objectively and transparently, so we could simply impanel professors from around the state to determine optimal districts.
Or we could turn the process on its head. “One man, one vote” is the legal standard, but we only approximate that goal. We could be exact about it. We could weigh each representative’s vote according to how many people he or she represents, 1.05 for someone from a larger district and 0.95 for someone representing a smaller district, for example. Instead of forever redrawing maps in pursuit of an unobtainable ideal, we could hold the maps constant and recalculate the weight of a representative’s vote with each census.
This would eliminate partisan games and give citizens not approximately, but exactly equal representation.