By Claude Tate
We hear the names of those who sway influence in America every day. We are familiar with those who lead our federal government. The President and the Executive Branch obviously have a major impact, as do the members of Congress and the Supreme Court. We are also familiar with the leaders of our state and local governments. And of course the CEOs of our major corporations, banks, etc. are also powerful in terms of shaping our future. We even hear about people who develop new technologies that impact our lives. But there are others who also impact our lives in major ways that are not in the news every day. In fact, I would say that few of us even know they exist. They are the people who toil behind the scenes to shape the choices we have when we go to the polls. They are, according to an article by Robert Draper in the October issue of The Atlantic magazine, “The League of Dangerous Mapmakers”.
Draper’s article focuses on one of those mapmakers, Tom Hofeller. As the article states in its opening paragraph, every ten years following just behind the census takers, “Tom Holfeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.”
As allowed by the Constitution, every 10 years following the census, the 435 congressional districts are redrawn (normally by the state legislatures) so they represent population increases, decreases, and shifts. The framers of the Constitution allowed this so as to “keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced”. But from the beginning; redistricting has been a “blood sport” that has used to keep some in power and others out of power. As Draper notes, in 1788 Patrick Henry engineered the creation of a district in Virginia that he felt would prevent James Madison from winning a seat in Congress by putting him in the same district as James Monroe, who he felt would defeat Madison. Madison won anyway, penned the Bill of Rights, and became President. And when Madison’s second vice president, Elbridge Gerry, was governor of Massachusetts, he helped create a district shaped like a salamander so as to benefit his party, thus the origin of the term, gerrymander.
So redistricting has had a long history in America. And it has been practiced by both parties. But today there is a difference. Thanks to people like Tom Holfeller the process has become far more precise. In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, I saw a poll that concluded only about 50 or so seats out of 435 were even in contention. I saw other polls which put the number even smaller. In those other approximately 400 districts, they were going to go Democrat or Republican regardless of who was running. What that means is that the candidates in those ‘safe’ districts do not have to listen to the other side. They do not even have to appeal to ‘the center’. So we are electing representatives who do not have to compromise once they get into office. In fact, in the recent elections, a number of veteran members of Congress lost because they had the gall to listen to the other side and compromise. I recently saw a statement by a candidate, and I cannot recall off-hand who it was, who proudly stated he would never compromise. Our government cannot function without compromise. It’s interesting how polls show an extreme dissatisfaction with Congress for this attitude which produces gridlock, yet we continue to elect the people who only represent the extremes. And that is due in large part to folks like Holfeller (he works for Republicans, but Democrats have their ‘Holfellers’ too).
The article caught my attention because it focused on the redrawing of districts in Texas and North Carolina. The new Republican legislature in North Carolina hired Holfeller to redraw our lines while Texas did not. Due to our past, both states must have their districts approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act to show the new districts are not discriminatory. Texas has run into a number of problems. But in NC, while cases have been brought claiming discrimination, things are far more calm because Holfeller makes it a point to not get too greedy. There are still several ‘safe’ Democratic districts. Mel Watt’s 12th district is safe, as is G.K. Butterfield’s 1st district. David Price’s 4th district was also preserved as a safe Democratic district. (Butterfield, Watt, and Price won re-election). But Price’s district was restructured dramatically so as to remove much of the Democratic base from Brad Miller’s 13th district. With his prospects for re-election in the new 13th district dim, Brad Miller decided not to run. A Republican, George Holding, now represents the new 13th district. Moderate (Blue Dog) Democrats such as Mike McIntyre (7th district) and Heath Shuler (11th district) were put in districts less favorable to re-election. McIntyre chose to run in the new district. (As of this writing, with all precincts reporting, McIntyre was holding a 378 vote lead, but I’m sure there will be a recount.) Heath Shuler’s district had included the entire southwest mountains. While the majority of that area votes Republican, Asheville and the Swannanoa valley to Black Mountain normally votes Democratic, and were responsible in large part for Rep. Shuler’s two election victories. Holfeller and the NC legislature took those Democratic leaning areas out of the mountains and put them into a district with Gastonia, Rutherfordton, Shelby, etc., which is solidly Republican. Asheville may have little in common with the communities in their new district, but that does not matter. What matters is that a Republican will be guaranteed to represent the new 11th district. (Mark Meadows, a Republican, is the new Representative from the 11th district.) And with Asheville and the Swannanoa valley now in the 10th district, Asheville’s power to impact congressional elections has been taken away. (Patrick McHenry, a Republican, won re-election in the new 10th.) Another moderate Democrat, Larry Kissell (8th district), decided to run, but the environment is far less favorable to a Democrat in his new district. (He was beaten by Republican Richard Hudson.) Due to the work of Holfeller and the Republican-led legislature, our congressional delegation has shifted dramatically in favor of Republicans. Before the 2012 election our delegation was composed of 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans. Now there are 4 Democrats (including McIntyre) and 9 Republicans. Holfeller did his job well.
And since the legislature also draws up the districts for the NC House of Representative and NC Senate, barring a major shift in population or a major event, the new districts that were drawn based on the 2010 census will ensure Republicans will maintain power in Raleigh, and in our congressional delegation, probably for the next decade. And since the legislature is involved in the process in some form in the majority of the other states, the party that gained the majority in 2010 will likely shape their state and its congressional delegations for some time to come also. And nowhere will they be looking at balancing the districts so both Republicans and Democrats will have an equal shot at winning office.
It is obvious that there are problems with how we handle redistricting. But what is the solution? Some have suggested that bipartisan commissions be created to handle the process. Various models of bipartisan commissions are used in some states now. Five states use an ‘advisory commission’ to draw the state maps, which are then presented to the legislature. Ohio and Rhode Island use an advisory commission for their congressional districts also. However, in most cases, the legislature is not bound by their maps. And some states use backup commissions who will draw the maps if the legislature fails to pass a plan. Seven states use ‘politician commissions’ where certain elected officials separate from the legislature are chosen to devise the maps. And six states use what is called ‘independent commissions’ that minimize the input of elected officials by forbidding both legislators and other elected officials from serving. An explanation of the various models and how each state determines the legislative districts can be found at http://redistricting.lls.edu/who.php. But partisanship makes its way into each of those processes also. Those who make the decisions have their own political views, and the outside consultants they all utilize, even if they do not work for either a Republican or Democratic organization, also have their personal political views. Maybe we just need to hope that Holfeller is correct when he says the system will correct itself.
So while the news may give attention to those traditional power brokers, keep in mind that the real power may indeed lie with those anonymous mapmakers like 69 year old Tom Holfeller who are major forces in shaping who gets elected to our state legislatures, and who in turn, shape who gets elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.