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Congressional Redistricting: A Diversion from Federalism

November 17, 2010
 During a recent discussion section, a valuable question was asked: “Has our Federalist system survived over the years, or has it changed?” In many respects, it has remained impressively intact with many of the ideas originally proposed in the Federalist Papers. With the exception of now directly-elected U.S. Senators, the “scheme of representation” postulated by James Madison remains remarkably similar. Also, the notion of the system of checks and balances, conceived by Madison and others, is nearly identical.  However, in modern day, the “violence of faction” appears to be exacerbating itself through one “institutional mechanism” that American pioneers may have overlooked: the ability for elected representatives to choose their own constituencies every ten years.
James Madison wrote in warning that: “a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unust views of the major, as the rightful interests, of the minor party.” (No. 51). This notion of a power that is independent of society is clearly apparent in the abilities of the legislature to re-draw congressional boundaries. This process has descended into the common political practice of “gerrymandering,” or drawing representative districts based solely on who supports the politician doing the drawing. As these images of the more infamous examples will show, representatives are no longer elected in districts proportionate to the region and population (as the writers of the Federalist papers intended). They are, instead, drawn to encompass only a demographic of people who will assuredly re-elect the representative of the district. For example, the image of the 4th Congressional District of Illinois represents areas of western Chicago where Hispanic Americans are dominant. 74.5% in fact. Oddly enough, the person serving his 9th term in this district is indeed Hispanic. In 1996, he received 93.6% of the vote.

Is THIS what the Founding Fathers had in mind?

Two disconnected sections, but the same district!

This is, of course, an abuse of power, and creates much more violent factions by polarizing America’s demographics and two primary political parties. And yet, it is a power completely independent of society that is perfectly legal. This system is also in conflict with the Federalist ideal of checks and balances. The community has absolutely no voice towards the decisions made in redistricting years, and neither do any of the branches of government. Therefore this is an example of a power independent of society. Madison would not be pleased with this. And, along with his warning from earlier, it allows for minority groups to be over-represented, while at the same time allowing for districts with such a supermajority that any other residents are oppressed. When all of a certain demographic are condensed into a certain area, it is impossible for “violence of faction” to get less intense.

As Madison wrote, “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause; because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” (No. 10) With redistricting, representatives are indeed their own judge, they are biased towards finding their own constituents, and thus corrupting their own integrity in the process.

The Founding Fathers endorsed the idea of regional diversity of opinion. They certainly did not anticipate “gerrymandering” that allows for everyone that thinks exactly the same way to be under the same jurisdiction. This aspect of our Federalist government is entirely alternative from the principles of Federalism. Yet, it is easily overlooked in our modern political system.

One Comment
  1. andrewjclark permalink
    November 17, 2010 6:02 PM

    I am confused why gerrymandering is uniquely posed against the ideals of federalism. Doesn’t redistricting for political purposes go against the ideals of anti-federalists and federalists alike?

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