We Draw the Lines

R. Daniel Proctor

Redistricting puts Republicans and Democrats at odds

Redistricting works like this: when your political party is in power, among the spoils of victory is drawing congressional and state legislative district lines. A legislative majority following the U.S. census brings with it the ability to shape—pretty much literally—the state’s political map.

When your party is on the short end of the votes, it’s a different world. You search for any reason to claim the drawn districts are unfair, unjust, and un-American (read “gerrymandered”). And if the parties’ respective political fortunes change and the one that was on the bottom finds itself on top, its members’ previously held redistricting principles are as hard to find as someone who owes you money.

Following the 2020 census, Tennessee and its Republican legislative supermajority began its march to redistricting, which, by the time this appears, should be completed. And if Republicans haven’t fashioned districts good for Republicans, no doubt it’s a big surprise to everyone.

Early in the process, there were, unsurprisingly, complaints about how Republicans were drawing their state maps. The lead paragraph of the Dec. 17, 2021 Nashville Tennessean redistricting story is illustrative: “Tennessee House Redistricting Committee on Friday unveiled—and voted to advance—its own draft state House map that would eliminate five Democratic incumbents who face re-election in 2022.”

Tennessee Democrats would qualify for an Endangered Politicians list: six Democrats of 33 state senators and 26 members in the 99-member House. The state Senate could hold a caucus meeting in an average-sized van. From dominating Tennessee politics for more than a century following Civil War reconstruction, Democrats’ fortunes have plummeted as the national party moves ever-further left and Tennesseans vote Republican.

Republicans had to win elections in formerly Democratic-drawn districts to reach the point at which the G.O.P. could draw district lines. Democrats, whose redrawn districts were once amenable to their candidates, are now on the sidelines, complaining. (Note: to know when a complaining politician or party is taking a stand on politics rather than principle, explore if in the past, when they were on the other side of the issue,  they took an opposite position.)

The U.S. Constitution sets out the rules on U.S. House districts: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing (sic) Senators.” But, says the political website Ballotpedia, “The United States Constitution is silent on state legislative districts.” And according to the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

However, U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the first in 1962, have established various state redistricting legal boundaries, principally in matters of race, population, activities of redistricting commissions, and partisanship, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Challenges to redistricting plans are not uncommon, but those who have the legislative votes still have the advantage.

Legislative district “gerrymandering” originated in 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law a state redistricting bill that helped to elect three of his party’s candidates to office. Some observers thought the district drawn by the bill resembled a salamander, with head, body, and claws; the Boston Gazette thus labeled the district a “gerry-mander,” giving birth to the term.

Gerrymandering is often claimed as a bad thing by people who don’t know their gerrys from their manders. Regardless of the party, any redrawn district lines that put them in a weaker position becomes gerrymandering. And again, it depends on whether you’re up or down in legislative numbers. In 2019, the Daily Beast website published an article headlined “Democrats hate gerrymandering except when they get to do it.” Tennessee Republicans don’t talk about it because they’re on top.

Regardless of party machinations, redistricting must be finished by April 7, 2022, the filing date for 2022 election candidates. Inevitably, both parties want to draw new lines to consolidate their electoral power. For Tennessee Republicans, unless something has gone desperately wrong, it should leave them singing a happy tune.   

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