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Politics

Commentary: Redistricting

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In 1787 the Founding Fathers created in the Constitution three political institutions that were brand new to the world: a branch of the national legislature elected by ordinary citizens, a federal structure of government, and separation of church and state. All were revolutionary and remain keystones of American democracy.

Not new to the world in 1787 but essential to setting up Congress was the census, in Article One, Section 2. Every ten years, at the beginning of the decade, Americans are enumerated. Although we now get a lot of information from the decennial census, its most important product is its original one: States are apportioned congressional districts based on their population.

Earlier this year we learned which states gained and lost seats (Missouri didn’t lose one for the first time in decades), and now we are learning how states are drawing their district lines. It’s fairly easy in Wyoming, which has one congressional district. It’s much harder to draw Missouri’s eight districts, not to mention California’s 52.

The stakes are almost inexpressibly high. Redistricting is the only thing in politics that has a known, actually guaranteed, shelf life of ten years – several eternities compared to elections or policy cycles. So both parties, and especially their incumbent office-holders, play hardball with the process. And the process applies to all levels of government, from Congress to CoMo.

The three redistricting rules are straightforward: Each district must have roughly the same number of people, it must be contiguous – that is, you must be able to go everywhere in the district without leaving it – and it can’t be drawn to dilute the vote of minorities. Otherwise, to the victor go the spoils.

In most states the dominant party flagrantly and shamelessly draws bizarrely-shaped districts where they can, and so far the Supreme Court has said it’s constitutional as long as they observe the three rules. Some congressional districts are the width of an interstate highway in places. My favorite is the “Earmuff District,” wandering from northwest Chicago to near O’Hare airport south down the width of the tollway and back east through Al Capone’s old neighborhood into southwest Chicago. It is drawn to maximize the chances that an Hispanic gets elected. There are dozens of them all over the country, apparently designed by someone on a bad drug trip, except the designers are totally sober and utterly serious.

I have the honor and great good fortune of being on the commission that, between now and February, will draft and recommend new ward boundaries for Columbia’s six city councilmen and councilwomen. I served on this commission in 2001 and 2011, and other than voting and teaching political science every day at Columbia College, it is the most meaningful thing I can do to support local democracy. In these commentaries I’ll provide periodic updates about what commission is doing, and how and why. Our hearings are public; check local media for time and place.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.