Gerrymandering: alive and well in state capitals

The latest computer hardware has replaced the pencil and calculator in many of this year's redistricting battles, but for inspiration state legislators still invoke the memory of a 19th-century Massachusetts governor named Elbridge Gerry.

It was Gerry who first proved that the placement of district boundaries could determine the outcome of elections. In 1812, he approved a salamander-shaped district designed to produce a safe seat for his party. Ever since, district boundaries have been manipulated -- a process dubbed gerrymandering in honor of Gerry and his famous salamander -- to lock in incumbents and majority parties.

This year is no exception as legislatures go about their decennial task of drawing new congressional and legislative districts that conform to recent census data. In state after state, politicians are proving that, despite the harm it causes representative government, gerrymandering is alive and well and flourishing. For example:

* In Indiana this spring, the Republican dominated legislature put three incumbent Democratic congressmen into a single district. Republicans carved up the constituency of a fourth democrat, Floyd J. Fithian, by dispersing pieces of it into four separate congressional districts. The new congressional map for Indiana should convert the current 6-5 Democratic advantage in congressional seats into a 7-3 edge for Republicans. (Indiana is losing one seat in 1982 because of the census.)

* In Washington state, the Republican majority in the legislature created a state senate district with a new geographic landmark known as Kiskaddon's Pimple. This is a two-block bulge that allows Republican state senator Bill Kiskaddon to live in one county (his house is in the "pimple"), while he represents another, neighboring county.

* In North Carolina, the Democratic-controlled legislature helped out conservative Democratic Congressman L. H. Fountain by giving him a fishhook-shaped district that neatly encircles and avoids Durham, a liberal Democratic bastion.

The widespread use of computers has given a new look to this year's gerrymandering revival. In about 30 states, computers providing instant analysis of the political and demographic makeup of proposed districts. The technology on display in some states is straight out of "Star Wars" In New York, for example, technicians can draw districts on computer video screens and have them automatically printed on map sheets.

Unfortunately, the advances in technology haven't been matched by improvements in the politics of redistricting. In the six months since the process began, about 20 states have completed work on congressional or legislative districting debate. Just 10 days earlier, armed guards had rushed to the floor of the Illinois house to break up another brawl sparked by redistricting.

Much of the noteworthy skirmishing to date, includingg the Illinois battle, has had a partisan edge. The GOP has mounted a well-financed national campaign to obtain as many favorable districts as possible. Republicans are hoping that the remapping now underway will help them take control of the House of Representatives and Congress in 1982. They believe that conservative census trends, primarily the shift of 17 congressional seats from states in the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt, will work to their benefit.

But Democrats may yet be able to minimize or even prvent Republican gains. They currently control more legislatures than Republicans and therefore will have a greater say in how districts are drawn. The dmocratic majority in the California legislature recently passed a congressional map that could add four or five new Democratic seats. Other key states dominated by Democrats, like Florida and Massachusetts, are not expected to draw districts until later this year or early in 1982.

Regardless of which party contols the process in each state, the public is bound to come up the loser. That's because the impact of gerrymandering goes far beyond the politicians it is meant to help or hurt. Rigging districts to benefit one party -- or incumbents of -- undermines the vitality of our democratic system. Because gerrymandering seeks to predetermine election results, it undercuts political competition and feeds voter apathy. Also, it fragments cities, counties and other natural units of representation in the interests of politics.

There is a better way. Currently, three states Colorado, Hawaii, and Montana have turned the redistricting job over to citizens commissions that are required to follow strict criteria in drawing districts. The criteria are critical because they limit the discretion of line-drawers.

The Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" decisions of the 1960s eliminated the worst form of gerrymandering malapportionment. With the aid of the Voting Rights Act, the court has helped curb gerrymandering that discriminates against minorities. But so far it has failed to stop political gerrymandering, which occurs when politicians manipulate the shape and placement of districts.

To forestall this type of abuse, additional standards are needed. First, there should be a requirement that county and city boundaries be preserved. This will restrict the freedom to gerrymander and ensure that communities of interest are effectively represented. Second, mapmakers should be required to draw compact districts. When a district looks like a fishhook or an octopus, you can bet it got that way to achieve a political goal.

Legislators aren't about to change their ways voluntarity. That 's why citizens groups have to hold them to a higher standard than political expediency. This means being prepared to press for a veto or file a court challenge when maps are gerrymandered.

For the long term, the major overhaul the entire system badly requires may yet come to pass if abuses continue. Legislation is pending in Congress that would force states to adhere to neutral standards in devising congressional districts. The Supreme Court may issue its own guidelines when it rules on this generation of political maps.

The civics lesson on gerrymandering now being offered in the corridors of state capitols may be just what is needed to end the infamous tradition of Governor Gerry once and for all.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.