BY MARTY MOORE
Suncoast News columnist
Following the 1810 decennial census, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry concocted a legislative reapportionment scheme to protect as many of his political cronies as possible. One of the districts was so garishly convoluted the Boston Gazette depicted it as a cartoonish salamander, calling it a Gerry-mander. The name — referring to the “packing” or “cracking” of political rivals to weaken their influence — stuck.
Packing refers to jamming as many opponents as possible into one district so as to make several surrounding districts safe for your side. Conversely, cracking means splitting the opposition into small chunks and dispersing them into contiguous districts so as to disburse their partisan potential. In essence it’s the politicians choosing the voters, not the other way around.
Both parties do it, but in 2010, Republicans under the guidance of Karl Rove outfoxed Democrats by pouring millions into state legislative and gubernatorial races specifically so they could control congressional redistricting following the census.
It paid off. In the 2012 congressional elections Democrats won 1.4 million more votes, or 50.4 percent of the total, than did Republicans but hold only 201 House seats to 234 for the GOP. In the seven states where Republicans had complete control over the redistricting process, Republican House candidates received 50.3 percent of the votes but 72 percent of the seats, while Democratic candidates received 49.7 percent of the votes but only 28 percent of the seats.
Nearly 200 congressional districts have been so conservatively gerrymandered that the Republican winner walked away with 55 percent to 70 percent of the votes in November. Democrats, on the other hand, can only count on about 160 “safe” seats, some of which are the result of Republican packing.
That leaves about 75 “swing” districts, meaning Republicans need only win a little over one-fifth of the up-for-grabs seats to nearly four-fifths for Democrats to hold the majority in the House.
Of the 43 states that have more than one congressional district, Legislatures in 34 have primary responsibility for redistricting, often subject to approval by the governor. Three states, including Florida, use independent bodies to propose redistricting plans, but final approval remains in the hands of the pols. How well it worked in Florida in 2012 is questionable since of the 27 districts, Republicans won 17 with 51.6 percent of the vote while Democrats won 10 with 45.7 percent. More equitable apportionment would have given Democrats another two to three seats.
One of the Democratic districts is the packed District 5, itself reminiscent of a salamander meandering from Orlando north through Apopka, west to Gainesville, back east to Palatka and on north to Jacksonville in order to insulate surrounding Republican districts.
But this is not a contest of which party can best disenfranchise voters. A pox on both of them. This kind of disproportional representation doesn’t bode well for democracy regardless of one’s political affiliation. Six states have instituted independent redistricting commissions to minimize the role partisan politics plays in the process. Voters should insist on this in every state.
Marty Moore is a freelance writer living in Port Richey.