Election 2012 October 2012

The League of Dangerous Mapmakers

Who’s most to blame for our divisive politics? How about the gerrymanderers quietly deciding where your vote goes. Inside the dark art and modern science of making democracy a lot less democratic.

And yet that’s exactly what the Texas redistricting bosses did last year. Shrugging off the warnings of Tom Hofeller and other Washington Republicans, the Texans produced lavishly brazen maps that resulted in a net gain of four districts for Republicans and none for minority populations. The entirely predictable consequence is that the Texas maps have spent more than a year bouncing between three federal courts, including the Supreme Court. The legal uncertainty has had national ramifications. It meant, for example, postponing the Texas primary from March 6 until May 29, which cost Texas its role as a prominent player in the Super Tuesday presidential sweepstakes—a very lucky break for the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, who likely would have lost the state to Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.

But the chaos produced by the overreach in Texas isn’t anomalous. Rather, it is very much in keeping with the new winner-take-all culture of redistricting, an endeavor that has somehow managed to grow in both sophistication and crassness, like an ageless strain of cancer that inhabits a host body for so long that the two seem inseparable, even as the former quietly destroys the latter from the inside out.

How ingrained is the practice of politically motivated redistricting in America? So ingrained that it existed even before Congress did. Late in 1788, just after Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution and thereby join the Union, Patrick Henry persuaded his state’s legislature to fashion the nascent 5th Congressional District in such a way as to force Henry’s political enemy James Madison, of Mont­pelier, to run against the formidable James Monroe, of Highland. Madison prevailed and later went on to become America’s principal author of the Bill of Rights as well as its fourth president. Serving as his second vice president was Elbridge Gerry, who as the governor of Massachusetts in 1812 had presided over a redrawing of the state map so blatant in its partisan manipulations that the curiously tailored shape of one Boston-area district resembled a salamander. The term gerrymander has been used ever since to describe the contorting of districts beyond all reason save political gain.

Though the constitutionally intended purpose of re­districting is to maintain proper apportionment of elected representatives, several states, for much of the 20th century, didn’t bother to adjust their district boundaries at all. The result, in Texas for instance, was that a powerful rural legislator like House Speaker Sam Rayburn could represent some 200,000 voters, while in the adjacent Dallas district, Bruce Alger represented roughly 900,000. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that such malapportionment violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. One of the dissenters, Justice Felix Frankfurter, warned against judges’ entering a “political thicket.” The high court subsequently ignored him. In the 1980s, the Court took umbrage at the re­districting orchestrated by Georgia Democrats and their leader, state Representative Joe Mack Wilson, who flatly declared, “I don’t want to draw nigger districts.” A decade later, the Court argued that efforts to boost minority representation could also go too far, citing Mel Watt’s North Carolina district, a wormy creature of such narrowness that, so it was said, a person driving down Interstate 85 with doors open on both sides could kill people in two districts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor tsk-tsked that “appearances do matter,” and the Supreme Court decreed in 1996 that even districts drawn so as to maximize minority representation should retain “compactness, contiguity and respect for political subdivisions."

O’Connor’s admonition notwithstanding, as works of art, redistricting maps continue to evoke a crazed but symbolically rich dreamscape of yearnings, sentimentality, vendettas, and hyper-realism in American political life. Districts weave this way and that to include a Congress member’s childhood school, a mother-in-law’s residence, a wealthy donor’s office, or, out of spite, an adversary’s pet project. When touring Republican strongholds, Tom Hofeller enjoys showing audiences the contours of Georgia’s 13th District, as proposed after the 2010 census, which he likens to “flat-cat roadkill.” (The map that was ultimately approved is shaped more like a squirrel that hasn’t yet been hit by a car.) This redistricting cycle’s focus of wonderment, in Hofeller’s view, is Maryland’s splatter-art 3rd District, which reminds him of an “amoeba convention.” He tends not to mention the gimpy-legged facsimile that is his own rendition of North Carolina’s 4th District.

The byzantine trade of redistricting was long dominated by brainy eccentrics like Hofeller and his Democratic counterparts Mark Gersh and Michael Berman. But that began to change in the 1990s, when the availability of mapping software (such as Maptitude, Red­Appl, and autoBound) and block-by-block census data for the whole country opened up the field to a waiting world of political geeks. The democratization of redistricting—made manifest last year in Virginia, which held a student competition, complete with cash prizes, to draw the best maps—is a lovely thing, perhaps. But as one redistricting veteran told me, “There’s an old saying: Give a child a hammer, and the world becomes a nail. Give the chairman of a state redistricting committee a powerful enough computer and block-level census data, so that he suddenly discovers he can draw really weird and aggressive districts—and he will.”

This amateur-hour dynamic presaged the Texas re­districting fiasco. My native state has a long heritage of bellicose gerrymandering, which began with pronouncedly racist maps drawn by Democrats more than half a century ago and continued with Tom DeLay’s knee-capping of Democratic incumbents in his notorious mid-census redistricting in 2003. But no one ever accused the DeLay machine of being out of its depth. In 2011, by contrast, the individual principally responsible for drawing the state’s congressional district maps, Ryan Downton, was a lawyer and co-owner of a medical-­imaging firm. The seemingly random hiring of a relative novice like Downton (who was defeated in May 2012 as a Republican candidate for the state legislature) was in keeping with a willful ignorance embraced by the state legislature’s two appointed redistricting chiefs, neither of whom had the slightest experience in this arcane field. (Downton says he was hired because of his litigation expertise, since so many redistricting cases end up in court.) As the veteran Texas Democratic redistricting strategist Matt Angle told me, “People who actually have an understanding of the Voting Rights Act—like Hofeller, who’s 10 times more competent than the people who drew these maps—they wouldn’t have been part of this.”

According to one of the Texas Republicans intimately involved in the map-drawing project, “Tom [Hofeller] and [Republican National Committee counsel] Dale Oldham created an adversarial relationship with the leadership here in Texas. Incredibly brilliant people who tend to think they’re right, and if you don’t agree with them, they don’t put much effort towards convincing you. And that rubbed raw with the leadership here in Texas."

Whether through personality conflicts or out of hubris, the Texas Republicans decided to do things their own way, with no guidance from Hofeller or other Washingtonians. When I asked Lynn Westmoreland, the House redistricting vice chair, to describe his role in the state’s redistricting process, he replied in a weary voice, “Well, the Texas legislature basically told me, ‘We’re Texas, and we’re gonna handle our maps.’ You know, I’m just saying that when you have a population increase of 4 million, and the majority of that is minority, you’d better take that into consideration."

These statistical realities left the Republican-controlled state legislature and Governor Rick Perry with three choices when it came to redistricting. They could bow to the demographics, draw three or four new “minority-opportunity districts”—­in which Latino and/or African American voters would have the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice—and then set themselves to the task, as Governor George W. Bush once did, of appealing to the state’s fastest-growing population. Or they could opt for the middle ground and create one or two such districts. Or, says Gerry Hebert, a lawyer who has handled numerous election and redistricting cases for Democrats, “they could use the redistricting process to cling to what power they have and hang on for as long as they can."

Earlier this year, I had a breakfast of waffles and fried chicken wings at the Poly Grill, a Fort Worth diner in the heart of a formerly Anglo east-side neighborhood named Polytechnic Heights, which, as a testament to the region’s fluid demographics, is now thoroughly black and Hispanic. With me was Marc Veasey, a 41-year-old African-American Democrat and lifelong Fort Worth resident. Veasey is the community’s representative in the state legislature and would like to be its U.S. congressman. Specifically, Veasey has been expecting one of Texas’ four new districts to be placed here, because of the explosive population growth of blacks and Latinos in the area.

Many House Republicans, like the Texan and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, reportedly agreed with Veasey that a new minority-­opportunity district belonged here—though for different reasons. Failing to create such a district would mean that each of the half dozen–­plus Republican members of Congress in the Metroplex would have to absorb increasing numbers of minority voters. Several once-safe GOP districts might thereby become swing districts by the end of the decade. Better, as Smith and others saw it, to preserve the existing seats by funneling the minority population into a new district.

But the Texas map-drawers refused to create such a district in the area. Over breakfast, Veasey explained to me what that lack of minority representation meant. Presently, Polytechnic Heights—one of many minority enclaves in the Metroplex that DeLay’s redistricters spread across five Republican districts, thereby “cracking” a potent voting bloc—falls in the district of Michael Burgess, a white Republican who last year told a local Tea Party group that he favors impeaching President Obama. “[Burgess] goes around saying ‘I represent more African Americans than any other Republican in the entire U.S. Congress. Look at me, look at my outreach,’ ” Veasey said. “There’s no way African Americans would ever have any influence in this district at all. His votes prove it. His rhetoric proves it.”

In February, after court testimony in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., Veasey and his fellow Democrats prevailed in a suit charging the state of Texas with producing maps that discriminated against blacks and Hispanics. A three-judge panel ordered that the new 33rd District be drawn into Veasey’s stomping grounds—and Veasey promptly entered the race. He won the primary, and in November he’ll likely capture what will presumably be a safe Democratic seat.

While the San Antonio court awarded the 33rd District to the Democrats, it also left largely intact the state’s drastic redrawing of the 27th District, a territory that includes Corpus Christi, the home of Congressman Blake Farent­hold. In the 2010 election, despite being an Anglo Republican who does not speak Spanish in a district that’s 74 percent Hispanic, Farent­hold upset the longtime Democratic incumbent, Solomon Ortiz, by a margin of about 800 votes. “I won, which disproves the fact that all Hispanics vote Democrat,” Farent­hold told me. “I go back to my premise that most Hispanics, especially in south Texas, if given a test on the issues that would place you as Democrat or Republican, would fall into the Republican category.”

In fact, Farenthold’s opponent, Ortiz, received 86.6 percent of the Latino votes cast. But Hispanic turnout in the 27th was abysmal that year. The Tea Party–backed Farent­hold garnered more than 80 percent of the non-Latino vote, which put him over the top.

Over freshly shucked oysters at a Corpus Christi restaurant one after­noon, I relayed to Farenthold the testimony of the state GOP’s map-drawers: basically, they all acknowledged that Farenthold would have had a hard time being reelected in 2012 if they hadn’t drawn him a friendlier map. District 27, which they obligingly constructed for him last year, sheds the border city of Brownsville, climbs up the coast and swallows portions of Ron Paul’s existing district, then abruptly hooks westward into the deeply conservative Bastrop County. The new configuration resembles a Glock pistol held at a 45-degree angle. If Farent­hold was so sure he had a Hispanic following, I asked him, then why hadn’t he insisted on keeping his district as it was?

Farenthold, whom I find to be one of the more charmingly plainspoken members of Congress, laughed. “Listen,” he said of the new map, “I’ll take a 60-plus [percent] Republican district over a swing district any day. Duh!”

Given Congress’s low standing, I wondered aloud to Far­ent­­hold whether allowing incumbents like him to escape the wrath of his constituents by installing him in a safer district wasn’t thwarting democracy.

“I’m willing to run on my record in any district I live in,” the freshman maintained. He pointed out that “at least 50 percent” of his new district would be composed of his present constituents. He added, “On a metaphysical level, sure, there’s gonna be some politics in it. But elections have consequences. You elect a Republican legislature, you’ll get more Republican-drawn districts. It works both ways.”

I asked Farenthold if being in the new district would in any way change how he conducted himself. “The district I’m in now is a swing district,” he said. “This [new] district is a much stronger Republican district. You say the same thing, but you use different words. Immigration would be an issue—you’re probably not going to change your mind on your core immigration issues, but you’ll be a little softer about how you talk about it in a swing district than in a harder-core Republican district.”

During his last few years in the House, John Tanner of Tennessee pursued a lonely quest to interest his colleagues in a redistricting-reform bill. Tanner was a co-founder of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who were all but wiped out in 2010, the year Tanner himself decided to head for the sidelines. He had introduced his bill first in 2005, when the Republicans controlled the House, then in 2007 and again in 2009, when Democrats were in charge and Nancy Pelosi was the speaker. “She and Steny [Hoyer, then the majority leader,] said, ‘That’s a good idea, we’ll take a look at it,’ ” he recalled with a smirk. “But the hard left and the hard right don’t want it.”

Tanner says that redistricting’s impact has evolved over time, from simply creating safe seats for incumbents to creating rigid conservative and liberal districts, wherein the primary contests are a race to the extremes and the general elections are preordained. “When the [final] election [outcome] is [determined] in the party primary—which now it is, in all but less than 100 of the 435 seats—then a member comes [to Washington] politically crippled,” the retired congressman told me. “Look, everyone knows we have a structural deficit, and the only way out of it is to raise revenues and cut entitlements. No one who’s reasonable thinks otherwise. But what happens? The Democrats look over their left shoulder, and if someone suggests cutting a single clerk out of the Department of Agriculture, they go crazy. Republicans look over their right shoulder, and if someone proposes raising taxes on Donald Trump’s income by $10, they say it’ll be the end of the world. So these poor members come to Washington paralyzed, unable to do what they all know must be done to keep the country from going adrift, for fear that they’ll get primaried.

“It’s imposed a parliamentary model on a representative system,” Tanner went on. “It makes sense for Democrats to vote one way and Republicans to vote another in a parliamentary system. It’s irrational in a representative form of government. So what that’s done is two things. First, it’s made it virtually impossible to compromise. And second, as we’ve seen in this past decade, it’s damn near abolished the ability and responsibility of Congress to hold the executive branch of the same party accountable. The Bush years, we were appropriating $100 billion at a time for the Iraq War with no hearings, for fear that [those would] embarrass the administration. Hell yeah, that’s due to redistricting! The Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration became part of the same team. We’re totally abdicating our responsibility of checks and balances.

”Tanner’s bill (which fellow Blue Dogs Heath Shuler and Jim Cooper reintroduced last year, to similar non-effect) would have established national standards for redistricting and shifted the map-drawing duties from state legislatures to bi­partisan commissions. Such commissions already exist in a handful of states, while Iowa relies on nonpartisan map-­drawers whose end product is then voted on by the state legislature. Tom Hofeller points to the California citizens’ commission as evidence that politics will inevitably find its way back into the process. “There’s no such thing as nonpartisan,” he told me.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hofeller insists that the dire consequences of his vocation are overblown. “We’ve had gerrymandering all along, so there’s no proof that that’s the cause of all the polarization,” he told me. “I’m here to tell you that there are two other major factors that are much, much more prevalent than redistricting. One is the 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week news media, where you only get noticed if you’re extreme. And the other is McCain-Feingold, which pushed a great deal of money to the extremes.” In limiting the size of financial contributions to national parties, the campaign finance–reform law encouraged donors to funnel their cash to opaque outside groups. (See James Bennet’s cover story on this subject.)

“That’s part of the problem,” Tanner conceded when I asked him about the super-PAC ads flooding the airwaves. “But you can trace how the members got here back to gerry­mandering. I don’t give a damn how much money you spend. These guys are gonna be responsive to the people that elected them, to avoid a party primary. And so they come here to represent their political party, not their district or their country. That attitude has infected the Senate, too. Look at Orrin Hatch,” he said, referring to the veteran Utah senator who fought off a primary challenge from an ultra­conservative. “Now you’d think he was an original member of the Tea Party. It makes you sick to see him grovel.”

Some redistricting experts argue that Americans have polarized themselves, by gravitating toward homogenous communities, a demographic trend observed in Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s 2008 book, The Big Sort. But, says one Texas Republican map-drawer, “redistricting has amplified the Big Sort by creating safe Republican and safe Democratic districts. Look at Texas. If you count [Blake Farent­hold’s] 27th as the result of a fluke election, the [racially polarized West Texas] 23rd is the only swing district in the state.” In this sense, the only difference that the new maps will make is that instead of one swing district out of 32, there will now be one out of 36. As to what this portends, former Texas Congressman Martin Frost, a Democrat, told me, “I won’t mention anyone by name, but I know certain Republicans in the Texas delegation who would be inclined to be more moderate, if they didn’t have to fear a primary challenge.”

One Texas Republican who dipped his toe in the moderate waters, by voting for last summer’s debt-ceiling deal, was Congressman Michael Burgess. Tea Partiers lambasted him to his face, saying, “You caved.” An analysis by National Journal found that politicians like Burgess were the exception—­that most House members who voted to raise the debt ceiling were from swing districts, while “the further a member’s district is from the political center, the more likely it is that he or she opposed the compromise.”

We know what happened after that whole debacle: the Dow Jones plummeted, Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating, and Congress’s approval rating sank to an unprecedented low of 9 percent. That intensity of public disgust has hardly abated, and it is felt across the political spectrum: according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this past January, at least 56 percent of all liberals, moderates, and conservatives would like to see everyone in the legislative branch fired this November.

If this is so, then perhaps Tom Hofeller is right. Perhaps redistricting reform is unnecessary. Perhaps instead the system is self-correcting: the extremists whom the map-­drawers have helped to create will be judged as obstructionists unworthy of their safe seats and, by means of electoral laxative, flushed out of the body politic. Thus cleansed, America can then slowly return to what James Madison called “this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities.” When that happens, we know who will be there to draw the battle lines.

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