January 2014 Bar Bulletin
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January 2014 Bar Bulletin

Political Gerrymandering: Does Your Vote Really Count?

By Matthew R. King

 

The U.S. Constitution guarantees every citizen of sufficient age the right to vote. But even in the 21st Century, it still does not guarantee that every vote will count, although usually every vote will be counted.

Have you ever really looked at a voting district map? Each voting district has seemingly random lines defining the district's boundaries. While the lines are drawn to encompass equal districts in terms of population, the lines are often the result of calculated decisions by the legislature where the boundaries are drawn by committee. The term applied to politically motivated line drawing is called gerrymandering.

Political gerrymandering1 occurs when a state legislature controls the time, place and manner of voting to create voting districts that artificially enhance the voting strength of one political party over another. The term arose in 1812 after Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry signed a voting district plan that created districts that resembled salamanders.

Such political gerrymandering continues to this day, Texas being a case in point. Sometimes the goals are downright blatant: "We are going to shove it [the map] up your [bleeping] ass and you are going to like it, and I'll [bleep] any Republican I can."2

Both political parties engage in gerrymandering. A recent study found that in 2002 Republicans captured 67 percent of the House seats in states where they controlled the redistricting process, even though two years earlier President George Bush only received 51 percent of the popular vote in those states. By way of comparison, the same study estimated that Democrats captured 57 percent of House seats in the states where they controlled the redistricting process, despite Al Gore only receiving 51 percent of the popular vote in those states.3

With this evidence, it is surprising that courts have been traditionally reluctant to address political gerrymandering and its constitutional implications, even though all citizens must be permitted to participate equally in the election process.4

To ensure that a voting district complies with this requirement, two factors are considered. First, each voting district must have "substantial equality of population." Second, the district lines must not be drawn in such a way as to invidiously dilute the voting strength of a particular political element of the voting population.5

Note, that Washington has enacted the Washington State Redistricting Act.6 The Act prohibits redistricting plans from being drawn purposefully to favor or discriminate against any political party or group.7


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