Understanding electoral redistricting

Stephen Gaughan, Chief Reporter

With the once-in-a-decade census process completed, its results tabulated, and the 2022 midterm elections fast approaching, for the politically minded, this can mean only one thing: it’s redistricting season.

Whether at the state level — with congressional, and state senate and assembly districts up for a revamp — or at the county level, with the Suffolk County Legislature once again drawing its own eighteen districts to be self-approved and signed or vetoed by County Executive Steve Bellone, the word gerrymandering is on the top of most legislative campaign managers’ minds.

Every ten years, new districts are drawn for congressional and state legislative seats to ensure that community representation stays up to date, and that the new districts remain close to each other in population size. But gerrymandering is not synonymous with redistricting.

“Gerrymandering is an age-old practice that usually results in districts that are weighted to favor one party affiliation over another,” said teacher of Economics and Government, and one-time Islip Town Council candidate Gary Giacchetto, in an email.

When gerrymandering, the party in control of a legislature (whether Democratic or Republican) will shape districts – although generally equally inhabited – however needed to ensure that its candidates will have the upper hand. Communities that may be different in terms of interests and backgrounds will be drawn together or cut apart to maximize the number of districts with a majority of reliable votes for that party, while establishing the bare minimum of electoral “swing” or “purple” districts, or ones whose support the opposing party can depend on. This can often result in some eccentric-looking districts, shaped and drawn together by squiggly lines.

Well, I know they tried a special bipartisan committee this time [redistricting the New York congressional and state legislative districts] that apparently could not function and gave up during the process.  This seemed like a good idea, but was proven to be unworkable, […] I might suggest finding a truly independent and impartial group to do the work of redrawing political boundaries,” said IB Global Politics teacher Jean Houston, in an email.

This bipartisan committee was a 2014 statewide referendum-created Independent Redistricting Commission, which attempted to solve the problem, but likewise fell under the shadow of partisanship, failing to yield consensus maps and ultimately returning its district-drawing power to the heavily Democrat-controlled state legislature.

As of now, the subsequent maps, proposed by the State Senate’s Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, were passed in both houses and signed by Governor Hochul in February, quickly drawing allegations of impropriety. Republicans are suing to have them overturned and redrawn.

“I have seen the new statewide congressional maps and yes they are the result of gerrymandering,” said Giacchetto.

Dr. Michael Jeziorski, an IB history teacher and the adviser for the Political Activists Club, elaborated on both precedents and the unfortunate history of the process now used by both parties in nearly every state.

“Political bosses would draw district lines in a way that would lump all minority votes into one conglomerate yet leaving all the other districts being dominated by the white majority.  Thus, a white southern politician would sacrifice losing one district yet winning a majority of the others.  Of course, this tactic was not just used in the South, and it wasn’t just used to weaken the power of a minority vote.  Gerrymandering has and continues to be used locally to strengthen the power of specific political parties. Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of this over the years.  Luckily, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in during the 1960s and ruled that each district should have approximately the same number of people in it,” said Jeziorski, in an email.

While both framed partisan district-drawing processes in a sharply negative light, with an indictment of its perpetrators, Houston offered some insights into the modern motives and rationales for the practice.

The impulse for parties in control of the legislature to gerrymander is understandable because it is done to put them at an advantage however it is, in my estimation, not much better than stuffing ballot boxes.  I would imagine the rationalization is that the opposing party would and will do the same when their opportunity comes around,” said Houston.

Just the same, many see the foundations of gerrymandering as woven into the US Constitution.

According to the Constitution, elections and the administration of elections is a state’s right and should remain a state’s right. Although the Constitution is vague in its description of the drawing of congressional districts, it should remain a state’s right and not left to the federal government to decide,” said Giacchetto.

But for some, hope for federal intervention in this process holds fast.

In that this is a nationwide issue it would make sense, I think, to have some federal oversight. For example, if a state finds a solution that brings more equity to the process, that may be held up as a model and an approach other states may be willing or able to adopt that would be helpful to know. Coordination in this way may be helpful […] a mandate from the federal government will not be seen as acceptable by state legislatures and I’m sure would be challenged in the courts,” said Houston. 🔳