Last Dec. 10, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case that will probably fade away into the obscure annals of American judicial history. The case is Veith v. Jubelirer and concerns the congressional redistricting process in Pennsylvania. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re probably not alone; who wants to read or write about redistricting cases when our justice system is busy contending with terrorists and Martha Stewart?
But Veith will only probably fade into obscurity because the Supreme Court will probably decide it the wrong way. On the off chance that the Court goes out on a political limb more fragile than a glass chandelier and decides Veith the right way, the case will shatter the political status quo, turn federal elections upside down and breathe desperately needed new life into our government.
Following the 2000 census, the Republican-dominated state legislature of Pennsylvania did what Republican-dominated state legislatures all over the country tried to do: it redrew the boundaries of the state’s congressional districts so as to overwhelmingly aid the Republican candidates. The details of the different redistricting plans vary, but the idea is always essentially the same: pack as many solid Democratic voters as possible into as few districts as possible, leaving the majority of the districts comfortably in Republican control. If multiple Democratic incumbents can be placed in single districts like two scorpions in the same cage, bloody and destructive Democratic primaries ensue and Republicans are even happier.
The redistricting process, popularly known as “gerrymandering,” is the mucky underbelly of national politics, and it is neither new nor a uniquely Republican strategy — Democrats have done their fair share in the past. It’s hard to blame either party for carving up their states into maps that look more like modern art than redistricting plans, because gerrymandering, especially in an age of digital technology, is such a potent political weapon. Tom Delay’s underlings, equipped with a new specialized computer program, were able to determine with scientific accuracy the optimal Republican congressional configuration for Texas, and in one fell swoop pick up 6 new House seats this year in one state. Through the old fashioned process we call “democracy,” it’s often hard to pick up that many seats nationally. In short, barring a Bush sex scandal, gerrymandering has secured Delay’s hold on the House of Representatives for the next decade.
But what are the broader consequences of gerrymandering? The founding fathers wanted the House of Representatives to be “the people’s House.” With terms of only two years and much smaller geographic areas to represent than their Senate colleagues, House members were supposed to constantly fear defeat and, as a result, pay attention to public opinion. Gerrymandering, especially in the virulent technology-happy form it has now assumed, makes a mockery of that vision; today, only about 30 of the 435 congressional districts are “competitive,” if you define competitive as giving both major parties a realistic shot at the seat. The vast majority of congressmen and congresswomen sitting in the House today have absolutely no chance of being overthrown by the other party. Their job security is therefore threatened by exactly one thing: a challenge from inside their own party in a primary.
In a primary election, turnout is depressingly low; 25 percent of registered voters is usually considered good. The people who do in fact show up, what’s more, tend to be people like me: the nut jobs who actually care about their party primaries. They are, by definition, hyper-political and, depending on the party, either ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative. Representatives are therefore able to hold onto power as long as they have the support of this narrow and polarized base, which they are virtually guaranteed so long as they vote with their party leadership on every issue and to never fraternize, much less compromise, with the subhumans on the other side of the aisle. Gerrymandering has done two things; it has made the vast majority of House representatives almost impossible to beat, and it has guaranteed that compromise on almost any issue is impossible. And people wonder why nothing ever gets done in Congress.
Gerrymandering has always been a painful and messy process, but the advent of new technology has turned it into a science and dramatically worsened the problem. I believe that gerrymandering is a fundamentally unconstitutional process that has transformed the House of Representatives into the polar opposite of what the framers originally intended. And the true tragedy of the redistricting story is that the problem is not terribly difficult to fix; bipartisan commissions could be established following each census in every state to reevaluate congressional districts and redraw the boundaries along lines that made geographic sense, ignoring the political ramifications of those alterations. But this change can only be made in two ways. One is an act of Congress — which, of course, would entail a majority of the 435 House representatives voting themselves out of power. So, on that front, I’m not holding my breath.
But there’s a second way. If the Supreme Court decides Veith correctly — if it rules flatly that giving state legislatures the power to redistrict is unconstitutional — then in one decision the Court could rid our country of the suffocating evil that gerrymandering has become. Because I believe in compromise and in government that is truly responsive to the people it represents, I hope that is what the Court decides to do.
Roger Low is a freshman in Branford College.