02/16/2011 09:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Art of the Mapmaker

In 2012 tens of millions of Americans will head to the polls, and their mailboxes, to cast votes for President, the US Congress, and thousands of state offices. Thousands of incumbents will be asking the voters to rehire them, hundreds more newcomers will be running against them, in districts shaped by population, census numbers, and politics.

Politics? I'm not being too cynical. Since 1812, when a Boston newspaper took a legislative map shaped by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and showed one district wrapped around the map like a salamander, the Gerry-mander has been part of our language. Political incumbents have power. Legislators would like to create districts that help their own careers, and their party's interests, while hurting their rivals' ability to win seats. Call it self-interest. Call it human nature. Either way, it's a very old part of our politics.

The novel creations of mapmakers could also divide big areas of minority settlement, in rural and urban areas, and make it close to impossible to get black and brown members elected to the US House and the State House. Along with the less subtle, and more brutal suppression of black voting rights in the South, and you get just two black members on Capitol Hill in the years after the Second World War. Yes, two: William Dawson from Chicago, and Adam Clayton Powell of New York. Apart from a relative handful of members here and there in California, Texas and New Mexico, there were few Latino members of Congress.

Make no mistake: The tiny group of black and brown members through much of the 20th century was not the result of rampant satisfaction of minority voters with the status quo. Nope, the game was rigged. There were fewer black and Latino members of congress because they simply could not win. Large minority neighborhoods around the country sent few members to the state government and the county board because of the way legislative districts were drawn, and because minority politicians were often forced to run "at large," drowning out minority voters with a majority white vote.

Enter the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was drafted to end a century of disenfranchisement of black voters, especially in the states of the Confederacy. No more literacy tests. No more poll taxes. And significantly, no more maps drawn specifically to exclude minority voters from power. Today the Congressional Black Caucus has 41 members. The Hispanic Congressional Caucus has 17 members, though there are more Latino members of congress who choose not to join.

The Voting Rights Act reversed the practice of breaking up communities of interest, and pushed the system in the opposite direction. Today congressional district meander across states to attach minority neighborhoods using highways, riverbanks, and highly detailed census data to stitch together minority supermajorities.

Why supermajorities? Because the assumption is that white voters won't cast votes for minority candidates, even when they belong to the same party. Is that as true as it was in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed? Is it as true as it was in 1983, when in almost entirely Democratic Chicago, the Democratic nominee Harold Washington won by a whisker against his white Republican opponent? Nevada, home to a large Latino minority, now has a Latino governor. A Republican, Brian Sandoval. Idaho, not home to a large Latino population, now has a Puerto Rican-born member of congress, Raul Labrador.

On the other hand, the Voting Rights Act has had the unintended consequence, according to many political scientists, of making the South more Republican, and more conservative. How? By putting minority populations into districts together in order to achieve supermajority seats, making the other seats whiter, and more Republican. White Southern Democrats, who could once count on a coalition of black voters and a small group of more liberal white voters to maintain a tenuous hold on their seats, now had little hope.

The news business went into speculative overdrive when the new state by state shares of congressional seats was released, as it confirmed the continued loss of population in the Northeast and Great Lakes, and the robust growth of the South and West. On the second round of analysis came the realization that those southern and western states gaining congressional seats are states with large and fast-growing Latino populations, and Republican legislatures. Those two facts pull in opposite directions as politicians sit down with census data to carve new legislative districts.
Reapportionment. It has to be one of the most bloodless words in the language, a wonk's delight that stirs the blood of political folk every ten years after the national census.

The federal government heads out into the country and attempts to count every resident of every state. Based on the numbers, the government then assigns seats in the US House of Representatives to the 50 states. No matter how many people are added to the total population count, the number of house seats remains stuck at 435. So for every state that gains, another state has to lose.

If you took the 308.7 million people established by the Census Bureau as the US population in mid-2010... Then divided by the number of congressional seats, 435... You'd get 709,759.

So why not just take the map of the United States, create roughly uniform blocs of land containing about 709 thousand people, and call it a day? You just can't. Alaska has only 698 thousand residents, but still gets a whole seat. Wyoming has about 544 thousand, and still gets a whole seat, as does Vermont, with 621 residents. Delaware has almost 900 thousand people... more than required for one seat, but far less than required for two.

Are you with me so far?

The cherished principle of equal representation falls to the vagaries of math, and the fact that congressional districts can't be in more than one state. In practice, a resident of Wyoming has a more powerful vote than a resident of Brooklyn, New York. (As a resident of the District of Columbia with no voting representative in Congress at all, any state resident ends up casting a more influential vote than I do, but that's a rant for another day.)

There is plenty at stake for the state's losing population, and gaining population. Census-based formulas are used when awarding all sorts of federal money, in transportation, education, and other responsibilities.

There are two very different ways of looking at the raw numbers. One has to do with the number of human beings... that's how congressional seats are awarded, by the raw tally of people in a geographical area. Then comes the political analysis: who will the voters be in a new district? If the resident population is heavily young (not yet eligible to vote), heavily immigrant (barred from voting), heavily poor (less likely to vote), power moves to district residents who are older, better educated, and wealthier.

For people who watch the remap for its impact on minority political aspirations, last November's midterm elections were a massive earthquake. Control of state governments from coast to coast switched from Democratic to Republican. Black and Latino voters, who vote heavily for Democratic candidates, have no reason to expect republican-controlled legislatures to map in minority interests... but for the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. New maps often head to court to be sorted out by a federal judge. It will be fascinating to see what the 2010 will bring.

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