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June 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-4


Mal-apportionment and the Miracle of Iowa


Gerrymandering Subverts Democracy



Despite the broad agreement in our society that voting is an essential element of democracy, the process for redrawing electoral districts every ten years is self-consciously manipulated for partisan advantage by both parties whenever they have the chance to do so.[15] “Redistricting is one of the most conflictive political activities in the United States.”[16] Attempts to control the redistricting process occur in virtually every state, and even attempts to use a non-partisan commission can backfire as the parties seek advantage. The recent experience in Arizona where the efforts of an independent redistricting commission were initially blocked and Chairwoman Colleen Coyle Mathis was fired and then reinstated by the Arizona Supreme Court is disappointing to those who would argue for attempts to remove partisanship from this vital process.[17] Ultimately, a map emerged that was approved by the United States Department of Justice[18] and, despite continuing challenges, was used in the 2012 elections.[19] Texas, under the leadership of Tom DeLay, even went so far as to redistrict mid-decade in the 2000s in an unapologetic attempt to increase the political power of the Republican Party.[20] DeLay’s efforts led to increased scrutiny of his behavior and ultimately to his downfall. The unabashed efforts by the leadership of the Illinois General Assembly to make sure that the process of apportionment stays under their personal control and its use to achieve personal and partisan goals was compared unfavorably to the mid-decade redistricting in Texas and arguably undermines the very legitimacy of Illinois government.[21]


Robert Dahl in his famous 1998 book, On Democracy, opined that effective participation and equality in voting were two of the five conditions for an ideal democracy to exist. Lipset and Lakin wrote, “Generally, there must be a realistic chance that the party in power will lose …. Our preference for democracy, though only imperfectly realized, is that competition yields some degree of candidate responsiveness to the electorate.”[22] Huntington defined democracy in terms of leaders being elected in “fair, honest, and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes . . . ”[23] When the system of apportionment creates districts wherein the outcome is predetermined, effective participation, free competition for votes, and equality in voting is not present. This point can be well illustrated by the history of redistricting during the Civil Rights Era.


Once the Supreme Court had made it clear that every state had to redraw its legislative districts and laid out the basic standard of “one person, one vote” the actual process of drawing the districts in the Deep South commenced. It was a process in which the idea of massive resistance led those who controlled the process to focus their efforts on drawing district lines so that the votes of minorities were diluted. The tactics, as always shrouded in unstated goals and hidden behind code phrases, involved the use of at-large districts, combinations of multi-member districts and single-member districts, and drawing single member districts in such a way so as to divide minority neighborhoods between districts.


The tool box available to those who would subvert the process and dilute the votes of sections of the society is well known:


Three techniques frequently used to dilute minority voting strength are “cracking,” “stacking,” and “packing.” “Cracking” refers to fragmenting concentrations of minority population and dispersing them among other districts to ensure that all districts are majority white. “Stacking” refers to combining concentrations of minority population with greater concentrations of white population, again to ensure that districts are majority white. “Packing” refers to concentrating as many minorities as possible in as few districts as possible to minimize the number of majority-minority districts.[24]


Let’s look at how this can work. Take the example of Iowa as illustrated in Figure 1. Voting statistics show that the number of registered Democrats, Republicans, and “No Party” voters are roughly equal, but that more Republicans live in the west and north, and more Democrats live in the east and south. If the Iowa General Assembly (IGA) is redistricting after a census which shows Iowa is entitled to five Representatives in the United States House of Representatives, and draws the lines on a bi-partisan or non-partisan basis, it would result in two safe seats for each party, and one “toss-up” district.



However, if the Republicans control the line drawing as illustrated in Figure 2, they can create two safe seats for themselves, one for the Democrats, and two Republican-leaning seats by “packing” the Democrats along the eastern border of the state with a north-south district, but then “cracking” the remaining Democrats with east-west districts. Each of these districts meets the United States Supreme Court criteria of equal in population, compact, and contiguous.



While it is easy for a court to decide in favor of a disadvantaged group when presented with clear evidence of intent to dilute minority votes, the situation wherein partisan advantage is alleged is much harder for those alleging disadvantage. Since there are so few minority voters in Iowa, the former has not yet been the basis of litigation.[25] The pursuit of partisan advantage is a pervasive aspect of reapportionment every decade, and had been in Iowa as well until after the 1980 census.[26] While the Supreme Court has stated that a cause of action may arise when partisan Gerrymandering takes place,[27] the justices have not been able to come to any agreement on how to decide cases in which partisan advantage is alleged, even though they do not particularly like its use.[28]


The issue is not just one of legality. It is one of the most basic of democratic theories — that citizens get a meaningful role in the process whereby public decisions are made. If the leaders of a legislative body get to determine the boundaries of the maps used to run elections, those leaders get to protect themselves in office.


This is exactly what has been done for decades in many states, and it is a violation of democratic theory.

The battles over redistricting that rage in almost every state in the union every ten years are a clear indication that political leaders firmly believe that it matters how the districts are drawn.[29] The huge advantage that incumbents enjoy in elections in virtually all legislative bodies at the state and federal level provides further evidence that our current system is not offering voters a real choice in most states. Bullock documents the decline in district competitiveness in races for seats in the House of Representatives since World War II,[30] but it should be noted that 58 incumbents lost seats in 2010.[31] Hirsh even went so far as to open his analysis of the redistricting after the 2000 census with the comment that “The 2001-2002 round of Congressional redistricting was the most incumbent friendly in modern American history, as many pundits have noted.”[32]


Turnover in state legislatures is lower now than in the past, and much of the turnover can be attributed to term limits and retirements.[33] Even though redistricting does normally produce higher turnover numbers in state legislatures in the first election after redistricting, especially where the redistricting process is non-partisan, in 2002, “only 4 percent of all incumbents lost their seat to an opponent of the opposite party.”[34] Windburn argues convincingly that the types of redistricting rules in place play a large role in preventing one party from protecting its own members through Gerrymandering.[35] Notably, Windburn found in his research that “the two most egregious Gerrymanders occurred in those states where the controlling party had complete control of the process ….”[36] It was not always the case that Iowa drew its legislative districts in a non-partisan fashion. For much of its history, the Republican Party controlled the redistricting process.




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