Take politics out of redistricting, say Tennessee congressmen
Plan for independent commission might map some out of their jobs

By Mike Madden
Published August 18th 2005 in The Tennessean
WASHINGTON — The last time a House member from Tennessee lost a bid for re-election was 25 years ago. Strange as it may seem, some Volunteer State lawmakers would like to change that.

Several Tennessee lawmakers, led by Union City Democrat John Tanner, are trying to make House races more competitive by taking the power to draw congressional districts out of the hands of partisan legislators. Independent commissions, not elected officials, would be in charge of remapping districts every 10 years.
If they succeed, supporters of the proposal say, the result could be closer elections, higher voter turnout, more upsets by challengers and a political system that better responds to what voters want.

"Rather than the constituents electing the members of the legislatures across the land and the Congress, the members of the Congress and legislatures elect their constituents," Tanner said.

Every 10 years, after the Census Bureau completes its survey of the U.S. population, House districts are redrawn to reflect where people live. For years, state legislatures have done the mapmaking — leaving the process open to political maneuverings designed to give one party an edge. That's known as "gerrymandering," after Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts lawmaker who pioneered the practice in the early 1800s, drawing districts his opponents said were shaped like salamanders.

Even in modern times, the districts that legislators produce can look like ink-blot tests — with borders that snake along highways and zigzag to grab chunks of different counties to help incumbents keep their voters together. With demographic data and sophisticated computer programs that analyze voting patterns, mapmakers can design districts almost guaranteed to elect members from a particular party. In the process, neighbors who share the same local problems and concerns can wind up being represented by different lawmakers.

"You can divide neighborhoods, you can divide houses, you can probably divide double beds if you want, to get down to people's voting preferences," said Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat who is working with Tanner on the bill.

Tennessee's districts do some zigging and zagging of their own. The 7th District, represented by Republican Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, sprawls from the conservative suburbs of Memphis to Williamson County, with a sliver of Hickman County as a connector. Democrat Lincoln Davis' 4th District forms an elongated horseshoe from Alabama to Kentucky.

But Tanner doesn't see big problems with Tennessee's districts, even though the average margin of victory for the Volunteer State's House delegation was 48 points in last fall's election.

"Tennessee, by virtue of its geographical shape, is probably one of the less egregious offenders in the country," he said.

"You can't be more than 75 miles from the state line anywhere in Tennessee."

Blackburn, who is wary of the redistricting proposal because it would leave unelected commissioners in charge of the process, said she liked her district's unusual shape. Though her constituents may live miles away from each other, she said, they share common concerns such as economic development, small-business growth and the environment.

"My district is a very diverse district, and I love my district," she said. Listing her schedule for a few days back home during the annual August recess, she ticked off three different counties and two cities she had gone to for events or meetings. "I see that geographic diversity as a true strength."

Proponents of change say that a lack of competitive races leaves voters with no real choice as they pick their representatives in the part of the federal government that's supposed to be the most responsive to the people.

Out of 435 House seats, only 10 elections were decided by fewer than 5 percentage points last fall, according to a study by FairVote, a nonpartisan group working to promote more competitive elections. Seven incumbents lost seats to challengers, and 13 seats switched from one party to the other.

"It's obviously the way the districts are drawn. They're gerrymandered so that you have safe Republican and Democratic seats," said Richard Grayson, a liberal Democrat who ran a write-in campaign last fall against Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., after Democratic officials didn't bother running a party-backed candidate. Crenshaw won with 99.5% of the vote.

A handful of states — Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington — do use independent commissions to draw districts. Others have laws to prevent unusually drawn districts. In Iowa, counties cannot be split between two House seats.

The FairVote study showed that some of the states with independent commissions — such as Washington and New Jersey — had more competitive elections than most other states, but that in others, it made little difference.