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Redistricting part 2: Hobbling the Donkey—How Did This Happen?

Manipulating the geographical boundaries of electoral districts—known as “Gerrymandering” --is as old as the nation itself. It actually predates the name. As Governor of Virginia, “give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry persuaded the new Congress to redraw the 5th Congressional District in order to see that his political enemy James Madison wasn’t elected President (Madison won anyway). It’s been happening ever since. But the last ten years have seen unprecedented redistricting to favor one political party. Namely the GOP.


The pie is divided 435 ways

The US Constitution requires the government conduct a census of the population every 10 years. From that information, the Constitution also states, government must also produce a new map of congressional districts. There are a total of 435 districts in the US, and the Constitution stipulates that that number does not change. (The US Senate contains 100 senators, two from each state, as stipulated in the US Constitution, and that number also does not change.) The entire population of the US grows each decade, of course, and so the number of people represented by a district increases. But usually the population of specific areas grows or shrinks relative to other areas. For example, in Tennessee, Middle Tennessee has experienced explosive growth, while West Tennessee’s population has shrunk. But the number of people represented in each district must be very close to the same relative to other districts. That determines where the boundaries are drawn. The process of redrawing the boundaries is called redistricting.

The equal population requirement for congressional districts is strict. According to All About Redistricting, "any district with more or fewer people than the average (also known as the 'ideal' population), must be specifically justified by a consistent state policy. And even consistent policies that cause a 1 percent spread from largest to smallest district will likely be unconstitutional."

Since the number of representatives is limited to 435, sometimes as population shifts or grows relative to the other states, states may gain or even lose congressional districts. For example, between 2000 and 2010 Ohio lost two congressional seats while Texas gained four. The process of reassigning seats based on population shifts is called reapportionment. So, the pie is split differently every ten years, but always 435 ways.

When it comes to state legislature districts, the US Constitution is silent. It grants individual states the authority to determine how each Congressional district is composed. Each state must determine how to create its own districts and their boundaries. States may do this any way they see fit. Most assign the task to state legislatures, others appoint citizen commissions, still others appoint political commissions comprised of officials such as the governor, state political party chairs, or heads of the state senate and house. Some states hire professionals to do the job using specialized software. Through carefully manipulating data and artful drawing of district boundaries, it is possible to put large groups of voters on the losing side of every election. Votes for the loser in districts are sometimes called “wasted votes.” Like a blue voter in a red district.

In 2013 the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based political group dedicated to electing state officeholders, issued a progress report on Redmap, its multiyear plan to influence redistricting. The $30 million strategy consisted of two steps for tilting the playing field: take over state legislatures before the decennial census, then redraw state and Congressional districts to lock in partisan advantages. It worked. (Source: The New York Times.  “The Great Gerrymander of 2012,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all ) However, the boundaries of some districts have been challenged on the grounds of partisanship and are the objects of US Supreme Court cases, such as the cases involving districts in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. (Source: Governing. “Redistricting Cases Could Redefine State and U.S. Politics in 2018,” http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-partisan-gerrymandering-redistricting-2018.html )


To the victor goes the spoils

Tennessee grants the authority to redistrict and reapportion both for the US House of Representatives and for the Tennessee State Senate and House to the Tennessee General Assembly. Specifically, the Tennessee legislature creates ad hoc committees to do the actual map-drawing.

Following the 2010 United States Census, Tennessee retained its nine congressional seats. In January and February of 2012, the state legislature approved a new state house redistricting plan, new state senate lines, and a new congressional district map.  These maps were signed into law by the newly-elected Governor Haslam. (Source: All About Redistricting: “Tennessee” http://redistricting.lls.edu/states-TN.php ) Before the 2011-2012 redistricting, Tennessee’s US Congressional seats were split, with five GOP and four Democrat. After the redistricting, the GOP took seven of these seats.  There was a similarly dramatic turn for Tennessee General Assembly and Senate.  Whereas the Democrats had sustained near parity with the Republicans before redistricting, the newly gerrymandered maps now placed the Democrats in the “super-minority” status.  In essence, the Republicans did not even need the elected Democrats to show up and they would still have the Constitutionally-required number of members present in order to conduct business.

When state redistricting and reapportionment occurs, districts are usually redrawn and/or overlapped or even combined. As the new maps went into effect, Democrats faced tough choices as the new maps were often drawn deliberately to impact specific legislators and make it harder for him or her to be reelected or to force them into primaries with other Democrats.  For example, in newly combined districts, one of the two prior elected officials had to go. This usually occurred in majority Democratic districts with incumbent representatives. In one instance, the districts of eight incumbent Democrats were reduced to four. Additionally, two districts were rearranged so that two incumbent Democrats were paired with Republican incumbents in districts that favor the GOP. (Source: Ballotpedia. “Redistricting in Tennessee after the 2010 census,” https://ballotpedia.org/Redistricting_in_Tennessee_after_the_2010_census#cite_note-wow2-21 ) Democrats lost seats as a result. It was a similar story in the senate. (Source: Ballotpedia: https://ballotpedia.org/Redistricting_in_Tennessee_after_the_2010_census  and Knoxville News. “TN house plan draws 5 black into 3 seats,” https://web.archive.org/web/20120304230549/http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/jan/04/tn-house-plan-draws-5-black-lawmakers-into-3/  )

After the 2010 census and when the redistricting process began, the legislature set up a website and a hotline for which citizens could make their opinions known. Democrats accused the GOP of not publicizing it and of making the redistricting and map-drawing process secretive. The bills were introduced in the house and senate, discussion was light, and the bill passed. The governor signed it. Almost a done deal from the get-go.

After house redrew its the districts, the senate contained 33 senators, 27 Republican. The house held 99 seats, 74 Republican.



Why is fighting this so important now?

In 2020, we get another shot at redistricting and we can correct the damage that the Republicans have set loose on the state.  2020 is the last race before the next census. 2020 will also be the year that the General Assembly is responsible for redrawing the maps that will be chosen.  Therefore, General Assembly seats that are flipped back into the hands of Democrats in 2018 and 2020 will be critical to forcing a more representative redistricting map.  In particular, the Democrats need to flip another 8 General Assembly seats over the 2018 and 2020 election cycles.  Doing so, they will then have the leverage needed to effectively shut down the legislature by blocking a quorum.  A united Democratic party that refuses to let the legislature proceed without a fair legislative map can succeed in redrawing the lines.

Additionally, the other key player in any redistricting plan will be the governor.  In 2018, Tennessee choses its next governor. A Democratic win in the governor’s race would be a huge step to repairing the damage to our electoral process.


What to Do?

First, though they are easily overlooked, in many ways, the most important races in the next two state elections are the races for General Assembly. Future901 has already identified and endorsed candidates that are running in “flippable” districts.  You should look to supporting candidates like Allan Creasy, Dwayne Thompson and Danielle Schonbaum, each of whom is running in a General Assembly battleground seat.

Next, the governor will play a critically important role in the redistricting process.  Whoever comes out of the Democratic primary will need everyone’s support to win this November.

Finally, give or get involved with Future901.  Future901 was formed to help progressives get elected to state and local government in Tennessee.  Tactically, one of our most critical objectives is to send progressives to Nashville to fight for fair voting districts. We need your help to win this fight.



Want to learn more? Check out these websites:

Brennan Center for Justice:  https://www.brennancenter.org/search/node/REDISTRICTING

Washington Post. "This is the best explanation of gerrymandering you will ever see,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/03/01/this-is-the-best-explanation-of-gerrymandering-you-will-ever-see/?utm_term=.1a2df3e77696

The Atlantic. "The Twisted History of Gerrymandering in American Politics,” https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/the-twisted-history-of-gerrymandering-in-american-politics/262369/

All About Redistricting. “What is redistricting?” http://redistricting.lls.edu/what.php

Ballotpedia. “Redistricting,” 


Written by Nikki Brock Wright

Robert Donati