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Diggs: Gerrymandering Bad for Representative Democracy

The ratio of registered Republicans to registered Democrats in South Dakota is roughly 7 to 5. The ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the South Dakota Legislature is 21 to 5. (Hey, Governor! Where’s our replacement for Steve Hickey?)

Roslyn columnist Lawrence Diggs can’t imagine how those disparate ratios arise from a fair election process (although I’ll warn those going down that road that the ratio of registered party members to Independents is about 15 to 4, but the ratio of partisans to Independents in the Legislature is 104 to 0). Diggs concludes the disparity can only come from gerrymandering:

The dictionary defines gerrymandering as the “the dividing of a state, county, etc., into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.” This kind of manipulation results in the dilution of power from the people while concentrating it into the hands of a few politicians.

…This is morally reprehensible because it makes a mockery of the election process. It is illegal under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the case of Karcher v. Daggett. It is anti-American because the cornerstone of the American way of life requires fair and impartial elections.

Bottom line, it is not representative of the will of the people. When there is such a gross disconnect between the number of people registered to a political party and the political power of a party, that can’t be by coincidence or accident. It’s more likely by unintelligent, undemocratic design and should be remedied now [link added; Lawrence Diggs, “Gerrymandering Ignores Will of the People,” Aberdeen American News, 2015.09.03].

Diggs would prefer that we take the power to draw legislative districts out of the hands of self-interested legislators and assign that important task to an independent commission. Farmers Union is paying me to circulate a petition that would put just such a plan to a statewide vote in 2016.

For the record, South Dakota’s legislative districts differ in population more than the gerrymandered New Jersey Congressional districts that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1983. However, Karcher v. Daggett dealt with Congressional districts. As with this summer’s SCOTUS ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, I’m not convinced that Karcher v. Daggett reaches beyond Congressional redistricting to Constitutionally bind state legislative redistricting to the same standards. But Karcher v. Daggett raises a valid legal question: if gerrymandering makes an unfair map for Congress, does it not also draw an unfair map for the South Dakota Legislature?

Whatever the legalities, Diggs is right on moral argument: gerrymandering serves no moral, democratic purpose. Gerrymandering is nothing but a tool of partisan hacks, undermining democracy and the voting rights of all citizens for the benefit of a few selfish legislators who’d rather not duke it out in a completely fair election.


  1. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-09-03

    Your last paragraph describing the immorality of gerrymandering is right on the money.

    I believe Diggs is also the vinegar guy. Apparently he is a true renaissance man.

  2. MC 2015-09-03

    Let’s forget about the blue and reds. The districts in Sioux Falls were drawn specifically to freeze Lora Hubbel out of the legislature; because of that little bit, I was magically moved from dist 25 to dist 9. Frankly I think this wrong

    Some of the board members wanted the some of the district lines to follow school district boundaries. not a bad idea but needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

    The idea of an independent commission to draw the lines isn’t a bad idea. The real trick is getting public input on the districts. And finding people to serve on this commission. What I seen of the proposal it seems workable, however, I would want to talk with a few more folks before I can really get behind the idea.

  3. 96Tears 2015-09-03

    Wouldn’t it be fun to stick it to the Republicans and grab control of the legislature right after a census and carve those districts to pump out Democrats and lock up the House and Senate?

    Yes. But whose districts are they? A political party’s possession to do what they want and elect who they want by rigging election after election?

    It’s the 21st Century but redistricting in most states is still treated like political spoils of the 19th Century. Those district do not belong to the state party. They don’t belong to the legislators. They belong to the people. They were created to represent the people.

    Rigging districts to rig elections is wrong. It’s childish. It’s un-American. It should be illegal.

  4. Jeff Barth 2015-09-03

    Lawrence Diggs is an interesting man. Perhaps he is the kind of man whowould like to be a US Senator?!

  5. Douglas Wiken 2015-09-03

    One house with membership based on percentage of state support of group or party with the state as a whole district eliminates gerrymandering in one house. It is a bit like parliamentary systems. A party puts up a slate. For ease of calculation, assume a hundred member chamber. If a party gets 20% of the total vote, that group gets 20% of its slate into that legislative chamber.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-04

    MC, I’d totally apply to serve on the commission. I think we have enough policy wonks in the blogosphere that we could round up a quorum for the 2017 special redistricting and then once veery ten years.

    I like you example of Lora Hubbel’s ousting by gerrymandering. This doesn’t have to be a Red/Blue issue. Gerrymandering is an example of lawmakers using the law to punish specific individuals. The law should not be used in such a fashion. The Legislature did that with the Daschle Rule; they do it with redistricting. We should stop that abuse of the law and make redistricting blind, just like Justice.

    As 96 says, rigging the election map is wrong, regardless of who does it.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-04

    Say, who draws school district boundaries?

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-04

    And Douglas, a parliamentary system? Now you’re writing a whole new initiative! But wouldn’t having citizens vote statewide for a party instead of in local districts for specific candidates move us one step away from direct representation? How do they pick the representatives who fill the party’s quota in the parliament?

  9. Douglas Wiken 2015-09-04

    Cory, not really a parliamentary system, but similar. Parties would elect slates at conventions just as they may now do with party convention slots. But, it has been a long time since I looked at a government text. I was long a supporter of a unicameral, but they can be susceptible to gerrymandering too.

    If the idea worked perfectly (which it wouldn’t), If the voting population was 53% GOP and 47% Democratic, with a 100 member body, 53 members would be GOP and 47 would be Democratic. The other house should be single-member districts with districts not determined by that body.

    Of course, such a system might cause a bunch of parties to sprout up generating a hopelessly fragmented legislative body. That is a congenital fear of political scientists, but it doesn’t always happen.

  10. MC 2015-09-05

    Cory, from what I understand The school districts get together and draw the lines.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-05

    Lawrence Diggs would perhaps like the logic of the representative slate system, Douglas, and I can see that logic, too. But here’s where I scratch my head a little:

    Right now the South Dakota electorate is 46% GOP, 33% Dem, and 21% Indy. Suppose that ratio were uniform in every district and everyone voted according to party affiliation and had candidates of the same party affiliation for whom to vote. In every district, under fair rules of election by plurality, Republicans would win. Even if we required run-offs and the Indies split 2-1 for Dems, Republicans would still win by fair majority vote. To elect a Legislature that proportionately represents political parties, we have to tell some districts that the majority of voters do not get the representative of their choosing. I have trouble getting around that notion.

    Rick and Drey’s ballot initiative would, of course, throw parliamentary slate representation into the dustbin, since all candidates would be non-partisan, and there would be no way to assess on the ballot which party people are expressing a preference for.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-05

    MC, I think you’re right—see SDCL 13-6-84 and subsequent statutes, indicating adjoining boards must both approve changes or citizens may petition for minor changes. That process would seem to preclude any major partisan motivations that would have produced gerrymandered school districts on the current map that would affect elections for any higher office. But then changes made at the local level to school district boundaries could become a matter of political contention.

    Since school district boundaries can change, maybe we should stick with county boundaries to determine Legislative districts. How about a Senate in which each of the ten most populous counties gets one Senator, while we pair up the remaining 56 counties by contiguity and give each pair one Senator; then give each of the ten most populous counties two Representatives and each of the 56 remaining counties one Representative? That would give us 38 Senators and 76 Representatives, a slight increase over the current 35 and 70.

  13. Kim Wright 2015-09-05

    Gerrymandering is a terrible practice in South Dakota. I attended several of the “open meetings” by the State appointed legislators comprising the redistricting committee the last go around. Their plan was in place well before any meetings or any other input from citizens or groups. This is one of the reasons I strongly support Rep John Delaney’s bill to open our democracy with open primary elections, independent redistricting commissions and national holiday for election day! I have sent my letter urging Kristi Noem to support the bill…..hope others will do the same!!

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