Opinion

They Want to Be in the Room Where It Happens

It has come to my attention that a number of dedicated citizens would like a break from worrying about the budget battle in Congress.

Perhaps you’d prefer to spend a little time contemplating a different part of our democratic system. Something more fun, easier to understand and attention-grabbing, like … redistricting?

Yes! While most of you have been focused on the infrastructure plan, a great many of your lawmakers have been obsessing over the new maps being drawn to divide up congressional districts.

Plus state legislative districts. Really, you can’t forget the state legislatures. Those people know how to get even.

We go through a national redistricting drama every decade. After the new census results come in, the states use the info to divvy up the districts. Many are running up against deadlines already.

“It’s really worse this year,” said Doug Spencer, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Law School, who runs a website called All About Redistricting. The pandemic slowed down all the census collection, he noted, and the pressure keeps rising. “Everyone feels it’s existential — the stakes are so high.”

We had winners and losers before the mapmaking even began. New York had spent about $30 million to encourage its citizens to fill out their census forms. But it still came up 89 people short and lost one of its seats in the House of Representatives. (If only Andrew Cuomo had used his last term in office trying to convince a couple of Minnesota garden clubs to relocate to Poughkeepsie, things could have been so very different.)

Texas, which keeps growing like kudzu, made much less effort but is nevertheless getting two new House members. Since virtually all that expanded population is people of color, it would seem natural that the new maps include more districts likely to elect minority representatives. Obviously, the Republican-dominated state government will get to work on that immediately.

Every state has its own special way of getting redistricting done. But one common approach is a bipartisan commission, given the task of redrawing the district maps. Said commission then goes over all the relevant data, feeds it into a computer, comes up with the boundary lines and then retires to private life bearing the thanks of a grateful state.

Hehehehehe.

Yeah, I left out the last chapter. For a typical real-life story, look at New York. Things seemed promising. Its commission vowed to avoid what the chairman called “smoke-filled Zoom.” Half Democrats, half Republicans, its members were all working for a cause higher than a paycheck, since the state took ages to get around to funding the project.

Alas, so far, the commission has divided 50-50 on competing plans to carve up the districts. I will let you guess what the difference between the two sides is.

Really, guess:

A) Vaccinated vs. unvaccinated.

B) Bills fans vs. Jets fans.

C) Republican vs. Democrat.

Yes! It appears the folks who’ve been working across party lines have not totally, completely forgotten which party they belonged to when the game began.

And in the end, even if the commission does comes up with a plan that a majority of its members can rally around, the Democratic-dominated legislature has reserved the power to override anything it doesn’t like. Typical story. The only unusual part, for this day and age, is that the Democrats are the ones calling the shots.

“All told, Republicans will have sole control over drawing congressional maps in 18 states and legislative maps in 20 states, while Democrats will have sole control of congressional maps in seven states and legislative maps in nine states,” wrote Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Things are not, you’ll notice, galloping to a conclusion despite the looming deadlines. Unless semi-magical extensions emerge, the state supreme courts could wind up drawing the districts in Iowa and Maine. In Illinois, Li added, there’s a fascinating system that could, in theory, completely shut Democrats out of the mapmaking process “despite controlling both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.”

Wild, huh? And while these great, galumphing dramas are playing out, there will, of course, be many, many modest attempts to tinker with the lines by incumbent lawmakers who would just like their lives to be a tad less strenuous.

In Manhattan, for example, veteran Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney is reportedly angling for changes in her district’s boundaries, so she could bid adieu to young, left and Latino voters from Brooklyn and Queens. They’re the same kind of New Yorkers who rallied behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she beat House Democratic leader Joe Crowley in a spectacular upset. At the time, Crowley came in for a lot of criticism for failing to campaign hard enough. Deeply pragmatic party members might also have wondered if he could have fended off the problem with a few tweaks of the old district map in 2011.

And so it goes. You can see why this stuff matters. Now you are probably asking: What can I, a conscientious citizen, do to improve the redistricting process?

“I want to say: Yes! Write to your member of Congress,” Spencer told me. “But honestly, I think we just watch.”

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