TOPICS > Politics

States stretch the limits of geography for politically uniform districts

August 12, 2014 at 6:48 PM EST
It’s no accident that 90 percent of Congress is re-elected every time; districts can be carefully drawn to protect incumbents. In Florida, a federal judge ruled that the design of two districts illegally favor sitting politicians, and ordered new maps just weeks before the primary elections. Political editor Domenico Montanaro joins Gwen Ifill for an in-depth explanation.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: No matter what the polls tell us about how unpopular Congress is, 90 percent of them are reelected every time. It’s no accident. Their districts are drawn that way.

For proof, look no further than the state of Florida. Last month, a federal judge said two key districts there designed to protect the incumbents representing them were illegal. So, yesterday, the state legislature came up with new maps, two weeks before the next round of primary elections, and even though a million voters have already cast ballots.

Florida is not the only state where the lawmakers from both parties have stretched the limits of geography to create politically homogeneous districts.

Here to explain what’s up and why is NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro.

So much of what happens, Domenico, in the midterms doesn’t have to do with what voters themselves are voting for directly.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, Political Editor: A lot of it has to do with how the table is set before the voters actually go into the polls.

You think that you’re voting directly for direct election of your congressman. And what actually has been happening is that the cake kind of gets baked. And over the last couple of decades — and it’s really gone back to even our founding fathers in certain instances, but really over the past decade or so, they — both sides have really perfected the game, perfected an art almost of how to draw some of these districts to either pack in a lot of voters of one party, to — in order to keep districts safe outside of that, or to exclude them in other ways.

GWEN IFILL: And I want to make the point you just made, which is both sides are engaged in this interest of preserving the status quo.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, right.

And we look at one district in Maryland, the Third Congressional District, where you really see what almost looks like a Rorschach test-like district, because it really meanders, as you can see, all over the state.

GWEN IFILL: I love what the federal judge said about that map, that it’s reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl lying prostrate across the center of the state. And actually he’s very poetic in that.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, and, look, Democrats did this to be able to draw out one Republican and give enough — pick up enough votes through the kind of corridor of between Baltimore and D.C. to get enough Democratic votes in order to district out the one Republican that was in one part of the state.

GWEN IFILL: So, a Republican represents that district, just to be clear.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Yes. But — no, a Democrat represents that district.

GWEN IFILL: A Democrat?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Right — but to give him enough votes to get out a Republican in another district.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: But the big picture here, the point of these things is not just to say, well, look how odd these things look. It’s that Democrats right now are so under-represented because of redistricting.

They are about 19 or 20 seats under-represented. If you were to do the math, that would mean they would have 220 elected members of Congress. And how many votes do you need to get something passed, like immigration, infrastructure? Two hundred and eighteen. So you would have Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not Speaker John Boehner.

And a lot of that is because of what’s happened over the last decade, where Republicans throughout the country — yes, Democrats have done this in certain places, but Republicans have put a lot of time and effort into legislative races, into governor’s races, and have really cleaned up and were able to really redraw a lot of these districts in their favor.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s go back to Florida, where in fact Democrats have done their share of this.

And this is that district. We were just looking at it. Looks kind of like it was a toothpaste tube and now it’s been expanded to include — for Corrine Brown, who’s a Democrat in that district, to include friendly districts.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: So, Republicans, the judge there had said that Republicans had to redraw these districts.

And still there’s a lot of drama to play out with this, because even though this — these districts have expanded slightly, what was happening with Corrine Brown’s district was, this was a majority African-American district. It was 50 percent. Now it’s about 48 percent.

And that’s what Republicans really felt like the judge was getting at, that this was an unconstitutional district. So they took some of the black voters out, put them elsewhere to try to change the landscape of it.

But August 20, next week, we are going to see if the judge even accepts this, and the judge could send it back and it could wind up in the Supreme Court, like we have seen in other places. And why that’s complicating is August 26 is when the primaries in the state are supposed to be.

Already, 1.2 million people have cast early ballots. And we’re not sure how this is going to play out, whether they’re going to have to have special elections for seven of these districts or so. It’s really a big mess.

GWEN IFILL: But why does it matter at all, to anyone who doesn’t live in these affected districts? Why is it of any national significance at all?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, like I said, you could have a House Speaker Nancy Pelosi if that were the case. Currently…

GWEN IFILL: But most people may not care who the House speaker is.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well…

GWEN IFILL: Does it affect their franchise?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, it affects what legislation gets through.

Frankly, for people who sit there and say, oh, Congress doesn’t get anything done, and they just ignore these kinds of things, say, oh, these districts, they look kind of weird and the redistricting sounds pretty funny, but what winds up happening is that important legislation winds up getting stuck or not getting through or passing on a partisan basis because you really do have a lot fewer competitive districts all throughout the country.

GWEN IFILL: But is it in either party’s interest to change that?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, it’s in the parties’ interest to retain power.

And they do squiggle all of these lines to try to get their own power, you know, increased. You know, I think there are some states where they do do it well. I mean, Iowa, for one, they look like four quadrants. Nevada. Indiana, even, has a fairly decent-looking map.

I think that a lot of people are starting to move toward wanting to have maps that look a little bit more normal.

GWEN IFILL: OK, well, we will be looking for normal maps the rest of the year.

Domenico Montanaro, as always, thank you.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Thank you.