Maze of district lines is a turnoff for voters

Published 12:09 am Sunday, October 10, 2010

OXFORD — Say you go to a pretty big church. Say there are lots of Sunday school classes from which to choose. Some are big, others are small.

Say the church has a council composed of one person elected from each Sunday school class. If each class gets one vote, people in smaller classes have extra clout.

Five delegates from classes with, say, 10 members each could win a vote against four delegates from classes with 100 members. In other words, 50 members could veto a change 400 members wanted.

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This was the precise situation the designers of America’s government faced. Some colonies were large. Others were small. Equal representation in the new government’s legislature based on the number of states would create the same imbalance.

So, what did they do? Well, as everyone knows there were many compromises — and a major one was to have a two-chambered branch for lawmaking. One (the Senate) is composed of two senators from each state, large or small. The other (the House) is comprised of apportioned representatives. Today, there’s one member of the U.S. House for about every 700,000 Americans — four from Mississippi, 53 from California.

This created the “one-man, one-vote” principle so that the voice of each citizen, whether from a large state or a small one, is equal in the lawmaking process.

This trip back to sixth-grade civics is not pointless. During the summer there have been lots of headlines about “redistricting.” These will continue into 2011.

That’s because the 10-year census has been completed, so when the tally is declared official it will be time for legislators in Mississippi to adjust lines of U.S. House districts, if needed.

But that’s just the top level. In Mississippi, both chambers of the Legislature are apportioned — divided into areas with equal numbers of voters — and so are judgeships from the Supreme Court on down as well as the Transportation Commission and the Public Service Commission.

At the county level, supervisors will be responsible for drawing new districts or beats for themselves, for constables and any other office that isn’t countywide. Communities with elected school boards will “redistrict” and municipalities will be changing the lines for ward or council elections.

This is an administrative process, often performed by paid consultants. At the outset, more than 200 years ago, the process had nothing to do with politics. Early mapmakers used known or natural boundaries such as rivers or major roads. It was arithmetic.

But, of course, it didn’t take long for incumbents to figure out that the power to draw district lines could be used as a weapon. If there was a troublemaker on the town council, the line could be changed to “pair” his district by shifting a line to put his residence in the same district with a more popular incumbent. Voila. Problem solved.

More expansively, the party in power in a Legislature — especially since voting patterns have been computerized — has been able to tweak lines and solidify or expand their majorities. The result is a mish-mash of multi-ballot precincts and sub-precincts that frustrate elections officials and turn off voters.

In Mississippi and other states with a history of racial discrimination, there is an overlay for the “one-man, one-vote” principle. It is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which says minority voting strength may not be illegally diluted.

Section 5 stopped the nefarious practice of splitting minority voters among many districts to pretty much assure that no black Mississippian would ever be elected to the town council, much less the Legislature or Congress. But there’s no up side without a down side and the down side of the Voting Rights Act has been that for a generation or more, Mississippi has had “black districts” and “white districts.”

While enfranchising minorities was an essential step for any nation or state calling itself a democracy, the fact remains that “packing” districts by race has not resulted in much bridge-building. More bluntly, minorities serving in elective office can cater exclusively to their voters and whites can do the same.

Perhaps the word “redistricting” in a headline will always equate with “turn the page” in a reader’s mind.

That’s a shame, because as political and cumbersome as the process has become, it’s still a foundational step in determining the quality of representation the people will have in their governments at the local, state and national levels.

The founders put fairness first. Their followers have been far more interested in power and protecting their jobs.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail