In Tennessee, Remembering a Time When Redistricting Didn't Exist

In the process of redistricting next year, state lawmakers undoubtedly will draw some legislative and congressional maps that serve the interests of one political party, ...
by | April 26, 2010

In the process of redistricting next year, state lawmakers undoubtedly will draw some legislative and congressional maps that serve the interests of one political party, that unnecessarily divide communities and that make competitive election rare. In a few states, they'll probably come up with maps that look as though they were drawn by a blindfolded left-handed chimpanzee using his right hand. But, it's safe to say that nothing lawmakers come up with this time will be as bad as Tennessee's state legislative districts in 1962.

The Rose Institute of State and Local Government has a great new guide explaining the nuances of how legislative and congressional redistricting works in each state. Who knew that if the Oregon legislature can't come up with a legislative redistricting plan, the secretary of state simply gets to draw the lines?

But, the most remarkable thing to me in the report is the history. It wasn't that long ago that legislative redistricting in Tennessee didn't exist:

In 1962, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr that the redistricting process is subject to judicial review. Baker challenged state legislative districts in Tennessee, which had not been redrawn in sixty years. Due to population shifts, some districts had eight times more residents than others. In Baker, the Court rejected the argument that redistricting is a non-justiciable "political question," and ruled that "malapportioned" districts are subject to judicial invalidation under the Fourteenth Amendment. In subsequent cases, such as Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) and Reynolds v. Sims (1965), the Court established the requirement that legislative districts (including congressional, state, local districts) must be drawn on an equal population basis, and may be redrawn by the courts to protect the principle of "one person, one vote."

I guess I shouldn't be shocked that, at a time when people were routinely denied the right to vote based on the color of their skin, basic democratic principles such as "legislative districts should have roughly the same number of people" were ignored. Still, no matter how politically contentious redistricting becomes this cycle or how unfair some of the maps might seem, I'll be thankful for redistricting.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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