How are districts drawn?

Legions of citizens around the country will embark upon an ancient ritual in 2020; the decadal custom of counting the nation’s people. Shortly following its conclusion in 2021, fifty separate Congressional district maps will be ratified and define the future of representation in the United States House of Representatives for the following ten years. Which is 13 years from now. Which is 2030.

How old will you be in 2030? If you have kids, how old will they be?

Thirteen years ago, In 2004, our country was at the height of its engagement in the Iraqi and Afghani wars. The 109th Congress had recently passed the Patriot Act and were laying the seeds for the largest domestic surveillance operation in the history of mankind. Congress was contemplating drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve. Tom Delay was still running Texans for a Republican Majority and the House of Representatives. The project for a New American Century was grinding away at stability in the middle-east and Countrywide and other mortgage brokers were destabilizing America by selling and collateralizing sub-prime mortgages to those pursuing their American dream.

What will be happening in another 13 years?

That specific question may not be answerable at this time, but there is one overarching thing we can be sure of: our path forward as a nation will be defined by those we choose to represent us as political leaders. Whether you care deeply about the environmental future of this planet, America’s role as a global leader in war and peace, trade and human rights, or if you are concerned with the trajectory of wealth distribution here and around the world; the members of the United States Congress will serve as this country’s leading decision makers. They will speak for you on these, and other issues.

Barack Obama told us in his last State of the Union that “we have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.” We Only If You Run could not agree more – the concept of Gerrymandering is not new (it was first used in the present context in 1812, to learn more, see Becca’s recent post) though the practices current prevalence is unmatched in its egregiousness. The primary motivation behind gerrymandering is to isolate or diffuse ideological voting blocs within or across congressional districts so as to neutralize their effects on electoral outcomes. If a block of conservative voters should be included in a neighboring liberal district, draw them in. If a group of liberal voters can be cut out of three conservative districts and placed into just a single district, box them in.

The secondary function of gerrymandering is to stifle the voices of Blacks, Latinos and other racial minorities. Gerrymandering, especially around large urban centers consistently focuses on isolating minority populations to diminish their impact on elections and the greater national dialogue.

So, how do these maps actually become law?

For those who remember the classic Schoolhouse Rock episode narrated by “just a bill up on Capitol Hill” the answer is fairly straightforward; for most states, they are drafted the same way that essentially every other pieces of legislation is drafted in this country: politically.

Most states lead the development of their own Congressional districts through each chamber: the House and Senate. Maps are drawn and voted on by each body. If both chambers do not agree on a single plan, then their two plans are combined into a single plan through a special conference committee to then be contemplated once again by each chamber. If the conferenced plan is passed, the map is then approved or vetoed by the Governor and the new map is submitted to the Federal Elections Commission to define representation for the next ten years.

But how are maps actually drawn?

Like any other piece of legislation: by Senators and Representatives, their staff and special interest groups. Governance is complicated and therefore divisions of labor are essential for ensuring that the significant lift of governing is responsibly managed. The empowerment of committees therefore is a critical element in the development and passage of legislation. Committees on elections are therefore created to take the lead on each chamber’s approach to drafting Congressional maps. As most bills (including Congressional maps) need to find their way through committees before proceeding to full floor votes, these committees are vested with significant power in determining the future voting patterns of the state.

This means that in any given state, maybe as few as four or five members of each chamber are the fundamental architects of these congressional maps. Imagine if you were one of those individuals, or the Chair of the committee; what would you ask for if someone came to you requesting that their district be drawn around or away from a certain neighborhood? Members of these committees can frequently be found on their hands and knees drawing lines street by street along massive maps on their office floors. An entire industry has even emerged to assist legislators in this endeavor. By combining voter registration data with appended “big data” sources spanning topics like what magazine an individual subscribes to, through to the age of their car or what their highest level of academic attainment is, the micro-targeting of neighborhoods and even individual homes has never been easier.

The existence of this process, as susceptible to corruption as it is, forms the basis of why the Only If You Run PAC was created. Our organization looks to support state level House and Senate Democrats who are running against Republicans in the seven most gerrymandered states in the country. We hope to add to the chorus of voices shouting for reforms to this discriminatory process through our support for these candidates. In 2008, RedMap – a Republican fundraising organization began giving $1 million to targeted state House and Senate races and helped to flip the majority in both chambers by targeting just six races – just in time to redraw the state’s Congressional and state-level House and Senate maps following the 2010 census.

In 2012, Barack Obama won Ohio, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown did as well (by nearly 325,000 votes), but yet the Republican Congressional delegation remained at 12 Republicans, and 4 Democrats. The Republican House sat at a 60-39 Supermajority, despite not receiving as many votes as Democrats in the state.

Only If You Run will support anyone who will stand against these practices and work to ensure that equal representation stands as the core function of any redistricting effort. We are not looking to simply support enough candidates to gain majorities in these states – we are looking to elect Democrats who will support overhauls of how these maps are drawn, ensuring that whomever is in power in the near and long term, cannot use their power and influence to silence voices and choose their own voters.

America is a place that is governed by ideas, it can be corrupted and it can be destroyed. By working to protect the fundamental elements that reject discrimination and protect equal representation, we hope to strengthen this country for ourselves and for generations to come. Please help us #unGerrymanderAmerica by donating to the OnlyIfYouRun PAC today