Big Bucket of Worms: Gerrymandering 101


Your Basic Bucket of Worms

Your Basic Bucket of Worms

Every ten years, Alaska struggles with the matter of redistricting. Ultimately, each redistricting plan winds up being written by the Alaska Supreme Court. Which is why the issue is a Big Bucket of Worms.

The Alaska Republican Party controlled the redistricting process this year, and it shows. WC will offer one example.

Here’s the interim map of the state senate districts, zoomed in on the area just to the north of Fairbanks:

Detail, Senate District Boundaries 7 and 8

Detail, Senate District Boundaries 7 and 8

As you study the map, you can see it tracks Farmer’s Loop Road eastwards, then follows Summit Drive north. Except for one, odd little shift to the west surrounding Vide Way. Why do you suppose the boundary makes that little jig to the west at the particular spot?

Here’s a hint: Senator Joe Thomas (D) lives on Vide Way. By shifting the boundary, the Alaska Redistricting Committee put Senator Thomas in the same senate district as North Pole, Alaska, a very conservative part of the Interior, even by Alaska standards. Where the incumbent is Senator John Coghill (R). Thomas is a canny campaigner, but Coghill has a famous last name, and is nearly an automatic in the North Pole area.

Gerry-mander Cartoon, Elkanah Tisdale, 1812

Gerry-mander Cartoon, Elkanah Tisdale, 1812

The practice of gerrymandering has a long, sordid history in the United States. The term seems to have originated in Massachusetts in an 1812 election, when Governor Gerry drew district boundaries in a vaguely-salamander shape. Governor Gerry’s map was immortalized by Elkanah Tisdale, an engraver in the drawing to the left. And the drawing pretty much immortalized the term. Since 1848, the term has been in Oxford English Dictionary as “a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating geographic boundaries to create partisan or incumbent-protected districts.”

Which pretty much describes what the current Alaska redistricting plan does to Senator Joe Thomas.

The practice, if not the term, seems to have been shipped to most democracies round the world. Exceptional, indeed.

All of which brings WC around to a decision on August 28 involving the recent redistricting in Texas – “Perry-mandering,” if you will. A three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit found that a set of maps for Texas Congressional, State House and State Senate districts drawn by the Texas Legislature failed to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They denied granting  preclearance to the maps, meaning that they cannot be used in elections.

Under the somewhat Byzantine rules that govern courts applying the Voting Rights Act, the D.C. Circuit can’t draw corrected maps. The U.S. District Court in San Antonio will have that task. The State of Texas will, of course, appeal complaining about the unfairness of it all, and how Texas shouldn’t be submitted to pre-clearance. And if that sounds familiar, it should.

Because Alaska’s own Captain Zero is presently suing the Federal government, objecting to the application of the Voting Rights Act to Alaska. Because, of course, there is no gerrymandering going on in Alaska.