As Tennessee Republicans sit down this fall to redraw the lines that determine the makeup of their legislative districts, there’s an opportunity to do unto Democrats what Democrats did unto them for decades — use the power of the pen to give themselves a political edge.
“Any time you have 99 politicians carving up anything, you’re going to have some controversy so I expect there will be some creative tension,” said House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick. “But we’ll work our way through it and eventually get something that 50 or more can vote for, and that’s what we’ll go with.”
Republicans, who snatched away the Democratic control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in 2010, now possess the magic marker to draw the state’s legislative districts, a process that’s done every 10 years in conjunction with the U.S. Census.
Legislatures across the country are redrawing their district lines, and in Tennessee lawmakers are just getting warmed up.
Both House and Senate lawmakers are meeting behind closed doors to figure out what their new districts should look like. In the House, Republican leaders are meeting with each representative in the 99-member body to talk about the districts. Officials in the Senate are further behind drafting their maps but expect to make a plan public by December.
Lawmakers are also responsible for redrawing Congressional districts, a process that is just beginning, McCormick said. Both the House and Senate expect to present their proposals when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, although the plans must make their way through several legislative committees in the spring in order to be finalized before the April deadline.
Around the country, the redistricting process has sparked hundreds of Voting Rights Act challenges.
Democrats in Tennessee are threatening to sue if House Republicans indeed end up putting two African-American lawmakers — Reps. Tommie Brown and Joanne Favors — in the same Chattanooga legislative district.
Rumors were also circulating that Senate Republicans plan to plop Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle into another Democrat’s Memphis district. Chatter around Capitol Hill also included plans to pit Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh against former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh in the same West Tennessee district, but those talks have fizzled.
Removing politics from the redistricting process is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean states like Tennessee shouldn’t try, political experts at a special Nashville screening of the documentary “Gerrymandering” said this month.
The 2010 film chronicles the history of gerrymandering and how it’s been used as an equal-opportunity political football to chop up districts and make them pleasing to parties in power.
“I don’t think you ever totally remove politics from the procedure, it’s probably impossible,” said Gregg Ramos, a civil litigation attorney practicing in Nashville, at the League for Women Voters’ panel discussion about gerrymandering. “But the more you can remove politics from the process, the better, it seems.
“I’m hard pressed to think of something good that comes out of this process.”
Gerrymandering is done by dividing an area into voting districts in such as way as to give one party or candidate an advantage over another, a practice Ramos says disenfranchises voters.
“What happens when my vote doesn’t count? You don’t vote,” he said.
Politics can’t be totally avoided, and the politics of Tennessee has shifted red, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.
“If we draw things fair and legally, it would be almost impossible to draw districts in the state of Tennessee that didn’t shift some from Democrats to Republicans simply because of the demographic change in this state,” he said.
“Democrat areas were usually the ones that lost population. If you look at that, it’s just factual. There’s nothing you can do about that. The Republican areas were the areas that gained population,” he told reporters last week in Legislative Plaza.
The true danger of a democracy is the “tyranny of a permanent majority,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “It’s just a disincentive to assemble, to petition and to speak out.”
In trying to learn more about the secretive process of legislators redrawing districts to favor their party’s political ambitions, the League of Women Voters is challenging Tennesseans to submit their own maps. So is Ramsey, who wants submissions by Nov. 1.