Legislatures corrupt the redistricting process

After every federal decennial census, the legislatures across the country carve out districts for the election of state legislators. In this process, it makes little difference whether the state is Republican or Democrat. This will happen in liberal Massachusetts and conservative North Dakota.

The strategy is to get more than your share of the districts that will elect candidates for your party. District lines will crawl across the state and end up miles from the starting point. (North Dakota has five districts that violate the constitutional requirement of compactness.)

It’s a corrupt process because in most states legislatures have kept to themselves the authority to chart their own waters. Prominent jurists condemn situations in which people or legislatures become the judges in their own cases.

When humans are involved, greed is a given – greed for money, greed for honor, greed for power. So fairness is overcome by greed for power in the cases of legislature reapportionment.

In preparation for serving in the North Dakota Constitutional Convention (1970-72), I studied all of the methods being used by states to draw the district boundaries. None of them avoided the partisanship that crept into the process.

We have already been forewarned by the legislative leadership that a committee of 15 to 20 will do the honors this summer as soon as the U.S. Census people have everybody counted. Then the mayhem will begin.

Each district must have an equal number of people. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that equality among humans was more legitimate than a count of haystacks. It made the people with haystacks really mad.

Achieving the equal numbers used to require a few minutes of extra thinking but legislatures now employ computers that can gerrymander with precision. The electronic geniuses can now sit in cushy chairs and tell the computer the numbers of Republicans and Democrats they would like in the next session.

To honor the principle that legislatures ought not decide their own cases, it would be necessary to wrest the power out of their hands by appealing to the citizenry with an initiative petition. This is about power and power is never altered without rallying greater power.

The whole process would be more fair if legislatures contracted for out-of-state experts who had no personal stake in the outcome. The word is neutrality.

The closest we can come to neutrality within the state would be a commission of district judges chosen at random. Judges would bring professional independence that would subjugate partisanship. Any seven judges would do.

The legislature has already taken a preview of the apportionment landscape and found that there has been significant population shifts within the state. Since the 2010 census, western North Dakota has made significant gains in population. West Fargo is big enough for its own college.

As the period 2010-20 unfolded, the inequities in legislative representation have grown with each passing year. The fact is that the 10-year census is no longer adequate for preserving equality in representation. Our whole society is moving so fast that a 5-year census would be more equitable.

The 1-person, 1-vote principle that demands equality among districts is good for only one or two elections by which time the inequities have warped the whole idea.

Inequities in representation raise a serious moral issue in a just democracy. Democracy demands that all human beings be treated equally. That is the definition of democracy. Gerrymandering is intended to deprive some citizens of equality in the representative process.

Even though we recognize the evil of legislatures judging their own cases, nothing has really changed since the 1970 Constitutional Convention.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.


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