Poisonous lizards are coming to Washington, and they’re hailing disproportionately from Maryland, North Carolina and Texas.
Two years after the 2010 census, new congressional districts have been set in the decennial reapportionment process run by the states, and some members joining the House of Representatives will be representing amorphous areas resembling the letter U, a rifle, an octopus and, yes, the salamander that gave “gerrymandering” its name. Gerrymandering was pioneered two centuries ago in 1812 by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.
The lines are drawn with devious precision, most often to guarantee that each party remains in control of particular districts. The new lines also will serve to preserve or exacerbate the ideological polarization of Congress for the next five sessions.
“Gerrymandering certainly locks in districts for one party or the other for essentially the whole decade,” and it occurred this year at a time when the House already is at a high-water mark for hyperpartisanship as well as Republican domination, said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at California’s Claremont McKenna College.
Many members of Congress no longer represent communities the way residents think of them, but rather areas containing slivers of many cities hundreds of miles apart.
“A legislator will do whatever he or she wants with virtually no accountability because anyone who might try to challenge an incumbent — a mayor or any other local official — has his own base split up,” Mr. Johnson said.
Though gerrymandering is done to protect incumbents, in the long term, it leads to ever-increasing extremes as districts carved with partisanship in mind remove the need for candidates to moderate for middle-ground voters.
“It’s a danger for incumbents when a seat is too safe: There’s an incentive for more extreme candidates in the primary because the general no longer matters,” Mr. Johnson said, conjuring the tea party challengers who knocked longtime moderate Republicans from their perches.
The Washington Times used mathematical formulas to identify boundaries that least resemble the squares or circles that one might expect and found that Maryland had the least-compact districts in the nation, even lower than Hawaii’s islands. That’s in part a result of the state’s unique shape, but mostly because of a redistricting plan from the Democrat-controlled Maryland General Assembly viewed as so partisan that a referendum on it also was on the Nov. 6 ballot.
West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Virginia rounded out the list of states with most-tortured districts.
“When there’s one party in control, there’s no real check,” Mr. Johnson said.
In Illinois, Democrats took four seats from Republicans on Election Day, and in North Carolina, Republicans took three formerly Democratic seats. The GOP-controlled legislature there did so in part by drawing areas that lumped Democratic strongholds into one, forcing the state’s Democratic lawmakers to fight one another, as it did with Reps. David Price and Brad Miller when it drew a map that included Mr. Price’s town and then snaked out to rope in Mr. Miller’s residence.
“If it were not for the trees in the way, I could hit the 13th District with a sand wedge from my home in the 4th District,” Mr. Miller, who decided not to run for re-election as a result, told The Times.
North Carolina, which has spawned numerous Supreme Court cases involving reapportionment, has a law requiring districts to follow existing political boundaries, such as counties, where possible, but it was not applied because of legal wrangling, he said.
“If the legal requirement of not dividing counties unnecessarily had applied, we’d have fairly reasonable districts that people would look at and not think of as an embarrassment,” Mr. Miller said.