Of Pork, Congressional Redistricting, and the 2010 Census

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

As 2010 draws to a close, the official results of the 2010 U.S. Census will soon be published, and we’ll know for certain how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be allocated between the states.

Congressional redistricting isn’t a sexy issue, or even particularly interesting, but the decennial census results determine the political makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the country’s direction over the next ten years and beyond. The national debt, the deficit, healthcare and Social Security reform, infrastructure renewal, international trade, foreign aid, national defense, immigration, and just about every other issue likely to come before the Congress will be impacted by this reallocation.

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” The first census, in 1790, which included the thirteen original states, plus Vermont, Kentucky, Maine and Tennessee, counted slightly fewer than 4 million individuals; estimates for the current census, the country’s twenty-third, are over 300 million. Clearly, we’ve been fruitful and multiplied.

And so has the House of Representatives, from 65 members, or one for every 30,000 citizens in the First Congress, to its current level of 435. The census’ primary purpose is to apportion representation in the House between all the states on the basis of each state’s population. The 2000 Census counted approximately 281 million people, giving us one U.S. Representative for every 646,000 people in the country. The 2010 Census will see that number rise to over 712,000 constituents per Congressperson.

Of course, apportioning seats is not a science, but rather a mathematical equation married to political manipulation. Since these numbers are all approximate, and no state is denied a presence in the House of Representatives, residents of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming—all states with fewer than 712,000 residents—have proportionately far greater representation in Congress than residents of Montana, for example, whose estimated population of just under one million entitles it to the same one representative as neighboring Wyoming, which has almost 50% fewer residents. And then there is the sad case of Washington D.C. (a district, not a state), whose residents are counted for the purpose of the Census, but who are afforded no representation in either the House or the Senate.

The math piece of this equation, based on the 2010 Census, shows that states with the greatest percentage population increase will pick up additional congressional districts (Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and potentially Oregon); states that have lost population (only Louisiana), or ones where the population has increased by less than the national average (potentially California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio), will lose seats.

Where it becomes interesting is in the political shenanigans that govern how states with either changes in numbers of congressional districts or changes in population density within the state will redraw district boundaries. The rules provide that all territory within a district must be connected geographically (unless there are islands involved, such as in Massachusetts District 10, which includes lower Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket). In addition, the boundary lines should not disenfranchise any voters, or create a so-called “safe seat” for either party. However, state legislatures gerrymander these lines according to political self-interest and self-preservation, and not for the benefit of the electorate; the districts thus designed are as geographically warped as the ideologies that created them.

Self-serving self-interest is the name of the game, as shown by the recent Texas redistricting where members of the Democratic Party moved to Oklahoma rather than vote for a redistricting plan crafted by Tom DeLay that created multiple safe Republican seats at the expense of Democratic ones. A safe district creates current job security for the sitting Congressperson, together with all its perks: healthcare, pension, more than generous vacation time, and the ability to send money home through the pork pipeline for all sorts of projects, whether worthy or not. But it also gives a political advantage, as holders of safe seats rarely need outside cash infusions to ensure reelection. Safe districts are gifts that keep giving; they ensure the dominance of one party and one set of ideas long after the general electorate has become disenchanted with that particular view.

The public is not ignorant of these efforts to influence the makeup of legislatures, and they are beginning to speak out. Voters in Florida, historically one of the worst gerrymandering offenders, overwhelmingly passed two amendments in the most recent election to deal with this problem. Florida Amendments 5 and 6 require national and state legislative districts not to be drawn to favor one political party or deny minorities equal opportunity. While the Florida electorate may be the first to challenge business-as-usual political redistricting, we can only hope it won’t be the last state to do so.

The integrity of our democracy demands no less.