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The new gerrymandering

March 16, 1982



It's not only the first primary election of the year but the first under changes in district lines that will influence American politics for the next decade. So, whatever the outcome in today's Illinois race, the occasion draws attention to a larger question. Can anything be done to counter the shameless politicking that so often takes new census figures, like those of 1980, as an excuse for gerrymandering away the spirit if not the arithmetical letter of ''one man, one vote''?

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The most populous state, California, may be offering answers here.

* Let the voters judge the fairness of redistricting through a referendum. Republicans managed to get such a question on the June primary ballot in reaction to a redistricting plan designed by Democrats. If voters reject the plan, districts would have to be redrawn for the 1984 elections.

* Set up an independent commission to oversee apportionment. This was suggested by the public-interest organization Common Cause in the midst of the partisan combat over redistricting. Either major party could veto a plan under the commission set-up. If the commission could not agree to a plan, the California Supreme Court would impose one. A petition drive is underway to offer the commission to voters in the form of an initiative. Whether or not this particular mechanism succeeds, groups and individuals need to keep coming up with such ideas if partisanship and discrimination are ever to fade in the mapping of voter districts.

The California case is notorious for Rep. Phillip Burton's boundary-drawing, including a new district that ''curls in and out like a snake,'' as he proudly noted--and that aids the reelection prospects of his younger brother, also a congressman. With California gaining two House of Representatives seats under reapportionment, the prospect is that Democrats will gain three to five seats there.

But redistricting has also made news in various other states. Illinois itself , having lost two House seats under the census, is one where the court had to step in to adjudicate between plans.

The record of many states in fumbling or delaying their redistricting--which often leaves the opposition party at a last-minute disadvantage - has not been a good argument for giving them more responsibility under the ''new federalism.'' Ironically, improvements in state government owing to ''one man, one vote'' are often cited as placing the states in a better position to take such responsibility than they would have been a quarter century ago. It seems evident they need to exercise more responsibility right now in the redistricting process.

Some go so far as to use this process for the purpose of diluting minority votes. Several are now under scrutiny by the courts and the Justice Department. Here is a clear argument for passing a strong extension of the Voting Rights Act.

What makes each state situation of more than local interest is the substantial change in regional representation caused by population shifts from the North and East to the South and West. It becomes freshly important that all individual Americans contribute to the nation with fairly apportioned votes, wherever they live.