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Drawing the lines that will influence politics for a decade

Once again states will be redrawing district lines for state legislative seats and for congressional districts, based on population shifts noted by the 2020 census.

We urge a fair process that would assure districts that are compact, respect natural community and geographical boundaries, prohibit favoring an incumbent or political party, and encourage competition and debate.

Regrettably, a majority of states will prioritize partisan political power over such democratic ideals, carving out in some cases twisting, oddly configured districts — gerrymandered — to make them safe for one party or the other, depending on which is in control of the lines. While both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of this practice, Republicans have made it a science, quite open about their intent.

We would also like to urge the federal courts to intervene when such undemocratic practices take place, enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment mandate that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges…of citizens.” Is there any such privilege more important than the vote and for that vote to be counted equally to those votes cast by fellow citizens?

Again, regrettably, in 2019 the conservative justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, while recognizing that districts the court reviewed were indeed “unjust” in their design, ruled in a 5-4 decision that it could do nothing to stop the injustice. “Gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

Federal courts are bound by that terrible precedent.

That’s the country we live in, where extreme partisan behavior is awarded and the highest court chooses not to intervene. The decision was a perfect coda to the court’s Citizens United ruling in which it found unconstitutional those laws placing limits on campaign spending. Corporations became people in that ruling, their ability to purchase political power “free speech.”

Both parties knew the rules going into the 2020 election or, more accurately, the lack of them. In the lead up to the 2010 election, Republicans had set about their REDMAP plan — the Redistrict Majority Project — aiming to win state legislatures and gubernatorial seats for the express purpose of gaining the upper hand in redistricting.

“The party controlling that effort controls the drawing of the maps – shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years,” states the group’s website.

They succeeded in spectacular fashion and, using computer-aided precision, drew deep-red districts in which a Republican congressperson’s only fear is being challenged from the right in a primary.

Democrats saw gaining some ground in the 2020 state legislative elections as critical to erode those Republican gains after the prior census. They made it a priority and totally failed, with Republicans gaining ground and now in full control of the legislatures and the governors seats in 23 states, compared to only 15 states where Democrats exercise complete control.

Ideally, states would use independent, nonpartisan commissions to draw state legislative and congressional district lines, and some do — Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New York, and Washington.

Here in Connecticut, a bipartisan Reapportionment Committee, which has just started meeting, will prepare a redistricting plan for the state legislature. Democrats have not used their long-held control of the legislature to hijack the process. Instead, there are equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans on the committee. If an agreement cannot be reached, the state Supreme Court settles the matter. A two-thirds supermajority of the House and Senate are necessary to approve the final map, again assuring bipartisan support is necessary. The governor has no veto power.

It is a process better than many, though a truly independent commission, as seen elsewhere, would be preferable.

Reform is better than urging fighting fire with fire — with both parties pressing every political advantage to disenfranchise voters of the “wrong” political persuasion.

There are efforts by House Democrats to mandate reform from Washington, but those efforts will run smack into states’ rights issues when it comes to drawing districts. And, realistically, such policies don’t have a political path forward.

Reform and fairness will come from winning hearts and minds at the state level. It won’t be easy.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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