Ask Cokie: Is Gerrymandering Rigging America's Political System?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So here's a question. Is America's political system rigged? Well, critics point to gerrymandering as evidence that it is. That is the practice of redrawing congressional districts to suit the party in power. The Supreme Court is going to decide if Wisconsin violated voter rights with its gerrymandering scheme which the plaintiffs say favors Republicans. But back in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan addressed a gathering of Republican governors, the shoe was on the other foot.
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RONALD REAGAN: The fact is gerrymandering has become a national scandal. The Democratic-controlled state legislatures have so rigged the electoral process that the will of the people cannot be heard.
GREENE: OK. So we are going to ask Cokie about gerrymandering, or, as Ronald Reagan called it, gherrymandering (ph). (Laughter) Commentator Cokie Roberts joins us each week to answer your questions about history and the political process. So, Cokie, is it gherrymandering or gerrymandering?
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: It really should be gherrymandering. The president had it right. Elbridge Gerry, after whom it's named, pronounced his name with a hard G.
GREENE: Well, OK. Let's go with gherrymandering. And before we dig into questions here, can you remind us, why do so many pundits point to this as the reason that our politics have become so polarized?
ROBERTS: Because if you draw district lines to put people who all agree with each other in one district then what happens is that the only way that a member of Congress can lose is to not please the purest of the pure of the people who agree. They're the people who show up at primary elections, and that's where the member of Congress gets challenged because the other side isn't in the district to vote against him.
GREENE: So that's why we've seen a lot of moderates ending up leaving Congress and - and why a lot of people were playing to their bases in elections.
ROBERTS: That's it. That's one of the main reasons.
GREENE: All right. Well, let's go to our questions now. Here's our first one.
JENNIFER BERRY: Good morning. This is Jennifer Berry in Toledo, Wash. Shouldn't our voting districts just be divided by population? Who decides the boundaries? And why is gerrymandering legal?
ROBERTS: Voting districts are basically divided by population. It's a question of what population is in what district. That's the issue here, as we were just saying. If all the Democrats are in one district so the rest of the state is Republican. Things like that happen in the drawing of district lines. In almost every state, it is the legislature that determines the districts, 37 states. So that's what you heard Ronald Reagan complaining about back in 1987.
GREENE: Which leads to the other part of Jennifer's question, why is this legal at all?
ROBERTS: It goes way back in history and was debated during the writing of the Constitution. Even James Madison found himself the victim of a vicious district that was drawn by Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, who hated the Constitution and wanted to defeat Madison. And Madison had to go into his district and promise the voters that he would get a bill of rights passed by Congress. The first Congress convenes, and he says we have to do a bill of rights. They say, you're crazy, we've got way too much else to do. And he says, it was a campaign promise. I have to do it.
GREENE: All right. Here's our next question. It comes from Cheryl Marks from Seattle, Wash.
CHERYL MARKS: Has the Supreme Court ruled on egregious gerrymandering in the past? If so, how often and when?
ROBERTS: Well, there've been lots of cases over the years, but for a long time they stayed out of what Justice Frankfurter famously called the political thicket. But then in 1962, the court ruled that legislatures that were favoring rural areas over urban ones were illegally acting. And the court has essentially said you can't discriminate on race or region but hasn't said you can't rig the system for partisan reasons. That's why that Wisconsin case you talked about is so important.
GREENE: You know, Cokie, there were a couple of questions on Twitter that - that seemed to go together. One was from Jeremy Jones, who asked, (reading) some maps are obviously worse than others, but what's the best way to make a fair map? And then another question, from Tamela Rich, was, (reading) do any states have nonpartisan commissions who actually draw these districts?
ROBERTS: So many opponents of the way state legislatures do the drawing say that the fairest way is to have a nonpartisan commission. Some states do in fact have that. The court has ruled that the commissions are constitutional, but of course it's hard to get state legislatures to give up the power.
GREENE: Why do I have a feeling that the Supreme Court, when they rule in Wisconsin, is still not going to settle this for good?
ROBERTS: (Laughter). Because it goes - it's - it's not something that you can easily do, is take political power away from people.
GREENE: Cokie, thanks, as always.
ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, David.
GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can tweet us. Just use the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.