About a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that what is called “partisan gerrymandering” passes constitutional muster. But that doesn’t make it right.
The term “gerrymandering” comes from the early days of our great republic. Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, later to become vice president under president James Madison, signed a redistricting bill (some say reluctantly) that drew a congressional district that would guarantee the election of a member of his party. It looked like a salamander, hence the name. The term, incidentally, is regularly mispronounced. Elbridge’s last name is pronounced with a hard “G.”
“Gerrymandering” is defined in Safire’s Political Dictionary as the “drawing of lines by the party in power so as to perpetuate its power; designing a district to fit a voting pattern.” The second of those clauses describes “gerrymandering” generally. The first describes “partisan” gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has been used for purposes other than party partisanship. Gerrymandering to unfairly reduce the voting power of ethnic or racial minorities was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court years ago. But the high court had consistently refused to rule on partisan gerrymandering until now.
While I oppose partisan gerrymandering (I didn’t always), I concede that the Supreme Court’s ruling makes some sense. The high court has for most of its existence held that some issues fall under a particular standard known as the “doctrine of the political question.” Under that doctrine, certain questions (even though they may offer obvious choices between right and wrong) are not “justiciable.” They are issues to be decided by the “political” branches of government (legislative and executive). I think a case can be made that redistricting is a “political” question.
But we needn’t live with partisan gerrymandering. Several states have created “non-partisan” or “bipartisan” redistricting commissions, charged with drawing districts sensibly. In 2018, referenda creating such commissions were on the ballot in five states. All passed.
Voters Should Choose
I introduced a constitutional amendment in the 2019 Regular Session of the Legislature to create such a commission. Such a commission would draw the district lines for congressional and legislative seats, and its decision would be final.
We could create a redistricting commission by statute, but that commission could only be advisory. The current language of our state constitution mandates the Legislature do all redistricting.
Creating a redistricting commission by statute would be easier, since we would only need a majority of each house of the Legislature to approve it. By contrast, a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote of each house, followed by a majority of the voters at a referendum. But a commission created by statute, in addition to being only advisory, could be undone by some future legislature.
I think we should work, in the next Regular Session of the Legislature, to place before the voters a constitutional amendment creating a non-partisan legislative and congressional redistricting commission. I believe the voters of our state would approve it overwhelmingly, as have the voters in other states that have been allowed to choose.
Such an amendment must be placed on the ballot in the 2020 general election to be in effect for the next round of redistricting, which will take place in 2021 (to reflect the results of the 2020 census). The U.S. constitution requires that legislative and congressional seats be redistricted after each decennial census.
Should the Legislature fail to place such an amendment on the ballot for 2020, I think our fallback position should be to try to create an “advisory” commission legislatively during the 2021 Regular Session of the Legislature.
The voters should choose their legislators, not vice versa.
— Mr. Doyle represents Jefferson County in the WV House of Delegates—District 67.