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Gerrymandering: A portmanteau threat to democracy

The dictionary tells us that a portmanteau is a word blending the sounds and combining the meaning of two others. Thus, for example, motel from motor and hotel, or brunch from breakfast and lunch. Portmanteaus such as those are innocent enough. Gerrymandering, on the other hand, a blending of the surname of nineteenth century Massachusetts Governor Eldrige Gerry and a salamander, has morphed into a particularly corrosive toxin on our American political landscape.

Back in 1812, Governor Gerry approved a state senatorial redistricting plan designed to ensure a Republican win against a Federalist challenge. The resulting district borders had such a bizarre shape that the Federalist newspapers responded with cartoon figures of a salamander-shaped winged creature – and the term “gerrymandering” was added to our political lexicon.

Gerrymandering has thus existed in American politics for a long time, both as a means to ensure power is concentrated in one political party or another – hence partisan gerrymandering, and to disenfranchise dark-skinned Americans – hence racial gerrymandering.

While certainly not entirely relegated to the trash bin of history, racial gerrymandering has been somewhat reined in through application of the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the implementation of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

Partisan gerrymandering, on the other hand, seems to be on the rise. Unfortunately, the corrosive effects of partisan gerrymandering are clear and many: It creates “safe” districts for politicians, discourages bipartisanship, breeds distrust, dysfunction and hostility vis-à-vis voters and their elected officials, and stokes the first instinct of power which is to retain that power – all of which in turn leads to further gerrymandering.

In short, gerrymandering circumvents the principle of one-vote, one-person that underlies our democracy, and it does so cynically and brazenly. The problem is that in most states, including Mississippi, the very people who stand to benefit from creating gerrymandered districts – the politicians, are the ones who are charged with drawing the boundaries of those same districts.

In some states, however, the people have risen up, said no more, and sought to remove political parties from the redistricting process. Thus, California and Arizona have created independent redistricting commissions. Tellingly, both these independent commissions were created through voter initiated ballot referendums.

Most states, however, Mississippi included, have left the henhouse to be guarded by the fox, so to speak. This puts our entire nation on a downward spiral where the corrosive effect of partisan gerrymandering will only grow as each redistricting produces more polarized districts, with more partisan politicians, and a furthering of the national discord we are currently experiencing.

While this may in the long run be an inevitable train wreck for our democracy, Mississippians can already see the headlight of the approaching train: In less than three years we will redraw our legislative districts based on the 2020 census. Although it is unlikely we will have to adjust the number of congressional districts as happened after the 2000 census, there will certainly be state House and Senate district adjustments to be made. History, and the system in place now, ensures politics will be in the fore of those adjustments.

For example, the Joint Legislative Committee on Reapportionment created by the Legislature to come up with the redistricting plan after the 2000 census consisted of 19 Democrats and 5 Republicans. By the time the 2010 census Reapportionment Committee was created, the legislature had flipped and the Republicans were now in control; that Reapportionment Committee thus ended up with 15 Republicans and 5 Democrats.

Which party is in control is not the issue, however; either will seek to increase its hold on power. Add to that axiom of politics, that since the 2015 elections, Mississippi is in essence a one-party state, and the temptation of injecting partisan politics into the upcoming redistricting process is simply too great.

I have no doubt Mississippi will muddle through the upcoming redistricting process and somehow dodge the careening train wreck a-coming; our state legislators as a whole have proven themselves to be honorable and dedicated public servants. That, however, is not the issue. History has shown that the temptation of partisan power is simply too great for all, even for the most honorable of men and women. For our democracy to survive, and in order to stem the growing partisan discord, we must find ways to remove partisanship from the legislative redistricting process.

One way would be to begin the redistricting process by simply dividing each state, using straight lines, into geographical districts of similar size. Some adjustments would be made to ensure population equality and community contiguity as needed.

This would be a straightforward process, remove partisanship and encourage and facilitate the election of representatives beholden to all – urban and rural, poor and wealthy, white and black, living in one particular district. While this would be the simplest solution, I am not so Pollyannaish to think such would ever come to fruition. For one thing it would require substituting modern political reality with old-fashioned American idealism.

Putting the redistricting process in the hand of non-partisan independent commissions, as California and Arizone have done, on the other hand, does work. Effectuating such across the land, however, would require an awakening of the people, a wrestling of the fundamental power underlying our democracy from the politicial parties and those who live within and for such parties, whether they be called Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, or Whigs.

As Mississippi faces the oncoming train wreck of the 2020 upcoming resdistricting process, now would be perfect time to begin such a national movement.

Hans Sinha is a Clinical Professor of Law at Ole Miss and a former prosecutor and public defender in New Orleans.