House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are urging citizens to submit proposals for changing the boundaries for state legislative districts, while the Tennessee League of Women Voters is holding a contest for plan submissions.
But there almost certainly will be a big disconnect between any plan that the Republican-controlled Legislature will approve and any plan likely to win part of the $4,000 in prizes offered by the League for the best plans submitted.
The League’s rules declare a preference for “competitiveness” in districts, meaning those districts are not stacked with voters deemed to prefer one political party over the other. League President Margie Parsley says she doesn’t think districts should be designed with incumbents in mind.
But Republican legislative leaders acknowledge that incumbent wishes will be a factor in drawing the lines for state House, state Senate and U.S. House Districts, and so will the partisan makeup of voters in a given area.
That would be in accord with past practice when Democrats controlled the Legislature. Accommodation of incumbent preferences and partisan packaging has made for districts of strange shapes in the past and probably will in the future. That would violate the League contest rules calling for “compactness” of districts where possible.
To illustrate what districts might look like without partisan makeup and incumbent protection in mind, the News Sentinel has put together sample maps. They were drafted by Steve Ahillen, data and Sunday editor, using widely available software.
(Note: Sample congressional map HERE; House and Senate maps HERE)
The congressional district sample map, for example, has considerably more compact areas than the current layout. It would have two Republican incumbents, U.S. Reps. Diane Black of Gallatin and Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, together in a new 4th District,
For the Knoxville area, the 2nd District seat now held by Rep. John J “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. would cover Roane and Anderson counties, now part of the 3rd District, but not counties to the south that Duncan now represents.
Democratic legislators of the past, basically allowed members of the Democrat-dominated Tennessee congressional delegation to draft the congressional maps. The current Republican leadership says that legislative committees will make the decisions, although they will listen to congressmen.
“I’ll work with whatever the legislature gives me. But my preference is, like almost every member of Congress, they want to keep as much of their present district as they can,” said Duncan, who reviewed the News Sentinel sample congressional map.
So did Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, who has voiced concern that Davidson County, the core of his 5th District, will be split into pieces by Republicans. Davidson is not split by the sample map.
“The past efforts were bipartisan in the sense that the incumbents on the (congressional) delegation agreed upon a map and then asked the Legislature to pass it,” said Cooper. “it was not as open and transparent as it should be, but it was bipartisan.”
Cooper is sponsor of federal legislation calling for congressional district lines to be drawn by an independent commission. At the state level, state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would have an independent commission design House, Senate and congressional districts. Berke points out that the constitutional amendment, if approved, would not have an impact until redistricting after the 2020 census.
“One of the good things about an independent commission, it will be transparent. Right now, we are dealing with redistricting all done behind closed doors for political purposes,” Berke said.
“If you split up a community among a couple of different legislators, Republican or Democrat, you can also split the political power of important communities,” he said. “People should have a say or a role in who represents them.”
Ramsey and Harwell, who appointed committees of Republican legislators to draft redistricting plans, contend the current process is more open and transparent than previous redistricting were in the sense that citizens can send plans and comments for committee consideration through the Internet.
But they are following tradition set when Democrats controlled the General Assembly in keeping the committee mapping sessions secret.
The plans they are drafting also remain shielded from public view. A spokesman for Ramsey says the final drafts for new district boundaries of the state House of Representative, the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives will be made public “sometime in December.” Harwell said it is “premature to set a date.”
“We are making every effort to have them (the plans) completed by the first committee meeting in January, and will take them up at that time,” said Harwell in an emailed statement.
“We are still in the process of meeting with each member, both Republican and Democrat, which takes time,” she said. “We are doing our due diligence to ensure these lines are drawn fairly and legally, and will have them done in a timely manner.”
The delay doesn’t sit well with some. Berke said the basic plans should have been made public months ago to provide for open public debate.
Parsley said the League of Women Voters supports the idea of an independent commission for redistricting and she is unhappy with the secrecy surrounding the current process as well as the delay in making proposed plans public.
“As long as the people in power are the ones doing the drawing, they are protecting themselves,” she said. “We’re interested in everybody getting a voice. Redistricting can cut people off.”
Ramsey, Harwell and legislators on the redistricting committees of the House and Senate say they are following the precedent set by Democrats. Also, Duncan said he dislikes the idea of an independent commission.
“I just don’t like any plan that takes political control away from the people and puts it in the hands of a very small group of elitists, and that’s what you’d be doing,” the congressman said.
According to 2010 U.S. Census statistics, a perfectly sized congressional district should have a population of 705,123; a state Senate district 192,306; and a state House district, 64,102. Redistricting law calls for congressional districts to be as close as possible to “one person, one vote” but allow a population variance of up to 10 percent in legislative districts.
Population variance is based on the difference between the lowest population district and the highest population district. Because of population changes, Tennessee’s present districts are substantially out of balance. In the congressional districts, for example, the highest population district, the 7th, has more than 87,000 people over the ideal while the lowest population district, has more than 94,000 people less than the ideal. State House and Senate districts are similarly out of kilter, making a major overhaul necessary.
Federal law also requires creation of “majority minority” districts where feasible to provide districts where racial minorities makeup a majority of the electorate. In Tennessee, the only “majority minority” districts deemed feasible are in Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties along with a West Tennessee state House district including parts of Jackson and nearby rural areas with a substantial population of blacks.