Electoral Districts

Electoral Districts

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American Politics, in the past, has been blighted by the issue of electoral districts and their impact on presidential elections. In recent years, this issue of electoral districts has become less of a problem, but presidential elections have to be seen as being 'whiter than white' and attempts to clean up the issue of electoral districts within American Politics have been well documented.

America had a history of poor apportionment of electoral districts. This was directly linked with the denying of the right to vote of certain groups.

For many years the Supreme Court did not want to get involved. Presidents found the issue of unfair apportionment a difficult nettle to grasp as it infringed on the rights of localities. The southern states wanted no change to electoral districts and they certainly did not want the federal government interfering in local politics.

In 1946, in Colegrove v Green the Supreme Court stated that federal courts should not enter into the “political thicket” of apportioning electoral districts. Justice Frankfurter claimed that such issues should be left to elected politicians.

But in 1960, in Gomillion v Lightfoot the Supreme Court took a different tack. In the city of Muskagee, Alabama, the white council had manipulated electoral boundaries so that the voting strength of the blacks in Muskagee was severely weakened. This had taken gerrymandering to an extreme. Muskagee electoral boundaries had gone from a square shape to a 28-sided figure that excluded many blacks from the right to vote.

In this case, the Supreme Court stated that the 1946 ruling was not relevant as it was not for the purposes“of an unequivocal withdrawal of the vote solely from coloured citizens.” The issue was not seen as one of “politics” and Justice Frankfurter claimed that the black citizens of Muskagee had been denied voting rights given to them under the 15th Amendment:

“the inescapable human effect of this essay in geometry and geography is to despoil coloured citizens and only coloured citizens, of their theretofore enjoyed voting rights. That was not (the intended effect of) Colegrove v Green.”

Up to the 1960's, rural areas were over-represented in electoral districts at the expense of urban areas. An extreme example was where the ratio of representation of rural areas in the region surrounding Atlanta , Georgia, was 99 to 1. In the southern states gerrymandering had been rife with the sole object of minimising the right of black communities to vote. Rich white families owned the rural land in the south and their political influence counted. In 1962, the Supreme Court in Baker v Carr concluded that Tennessee was at fault for not having changed electoral districts since 1901 and Justice Brennan founded that the failure to reapportion districts had been a denial of the rights contained in the 14th Amendment.

The findings of Baker v Carr were simple - the Federal Courts had a right to deal with apportionment questions. This finding started a flood of cases that continued right through to the 1980's. Most of these concerned the southern states :

Gray v Sanders (1963) : Georgia's voting system was declared unconstitutional with regards to its county-unit system. This violated the 15th, 17th and 19th Amendments. In Wesberry v Sanders (1964) the Supreme Court declared that Georgia's US Congressional Districts could not be justified under the US Constitution. The Court declared that “the principle of equal representation for equal numbers of people (was) the fundamental goal of the House of Representatives.” In Reynolds v Sims (1964) The Supreme Court struck down the county-unit rule of Alabama which allowed districts of 15,000 to have the same political power as districts such as Jefferson County which had a population of 600,000. The smaller districts were usually made up of white rural farmers while Jefferson County had a very large black population in Birmingham City. This set-up was declared a violation of the 14th Amendment.

There is a requirement today to make electoral districts as equal as is mathematically possible. This is the so-called Warren principle. No one person should feel that his/her vote is of less importance than any other person. The same is true for groups of citizens. In the era before the court cases of the 1960's electoral districts were frequently unequal in population size and there was usually a racial reason for this - or if race was not an issue, then it was an attempt to keep working class votes to a minimum - or the impact of those votes. In the 1980's the state with the most variation in electoral districts was Alabama where the deviation percentage was 2.45% which is considered trivial.

The Supreme Court has yet to declare gerrymandering for partisan reasons (as opposed for racial) unconstitutional. Gubernatorial and State legislative elections held at the end of each decade but before a new census have a special significance. The party that holds the state governorship and the state legislature is well placed to redistrict to its own advantage.

In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was re-authorised. This has lead to minority districts being created - racial minority districts in an effort to get more racial minorities elected to power. This was disputed in Shaw v Reno (1993) when five white voters claimed that their rights under the 14th Amendment had been violated. By a vote of 5 to 4, the Court decided that the creation of minority districts was constitutionally doubtful. However, there has been no final settlement of the issue as no single principle of representational equality has found universal assent. The advantage of the minority districts is that black Americans and Hispanics in particular continue to be elected to them. Many white political incumbents have protested about minority districts as they themselves could be disadvantaged by the creation of them with a change in electoral district boundaries.

With a country the size of America and with its history of racial problems, it is likely that electoral districts will continue to be a source of interest for a number of years to come especially with the changing population of states.

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