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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, June 26, 2020

Gerrymandering makes TN look redder than it is




Campaign signs popping up in neighborhood yards were a clear reminder: There’s an election coming.

No, I don’t mean the presidential election. Pretty much aware of that one.

Legislative contests are my topic. All state House seats are involved, and half the Senate seats. Each body has a Republican supermajority; the Senate has a Republican super-duper majority.

Yes, we’re a red state. But are we THAT red? Senator Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, thinks not.

“In almost every election in Tennessee you’ll see that at least 40% of people are Democrats,” he tells me, “but Democrats only represent about 15% of the state Senate.”

He’s right on the money: There are 28 Senate Republicans and only five Democrats. The numbers for the House are not that stark: 73 Republicans, 26 Democrats, but still: That’s darn near a 3-to-1 advantage, or disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint.

Let’s focus on the state Senate, since it is so skewed. As recently as 2010, it was tilted red, but more reasonably so: 20 Republicans, 13 Democrats. By 2012, the balance had shifted to 26 to 7.

What happened from one election to the next? Did public opinion swing that much? Or was there some other factor at work? Like, say, a redistricting plan drawn up by legislative Republicans and put in place for the 2012 election?

“I think the unfair redistricting is undeniably a massive factor in the partisan divide of the legislature,” Yarbro says.

“If you look district by district you can see obvious attempts to ensure that a Democrat doesn’t hold office.”

Having Democrats so deeply underrepresented in the General Assembly leads to legislative outcomes that make the state look more conservative than it really is, Yarbro says.

The imbalance was accomplished by a process for drawing district lines known as cracking and packing, Yarbro explains. In cities like Murfreesboro, Chattanooga and Knoxville, he explains, urban residents – who tend to vote Democratic – have been divided into different districts to limit their ballot power.

That’s the cracking part.

“On the other hand, in Memphis and in Nashville, you have districts that are undeniably packed with Democratic votes,” he says.

In his first bid for the Senate, Yarbro adds, which he lost in 2010, the district was basically south and west Nashville. By the time he ran again and won in 2014, the district crossed the lines of 24 of the 35 Metro Council districts, he says. He called it the most conservative of the five seats held by Democrats, with about 60% Democratic voters.

The other four, he notes, are basically 90% Democratic. Let’s allow for some exaggeration. You see his point.

Democrats complained about the redistricting plan pretty much from the get-go. They sued in Davidson County Chancery Court. But the suit was dismissed about a year later – after the election with GOP lines in place – and that decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

A suit like that would stand no chance at all now. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court washed its judicial hands of the whole issue.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

Since his election to the state Senate, Yarbro has tried a different approach: Legislation.

He had sponsored a couple of measures on the topic this year, including a resolution to establish an independent redistricting commission to draw new legislative lines after this year’s census provides an updated look at where people are. It’s a process adopted by about a dozen states.

Because of coronavirus distractions, he didn’t push it. Not that it probably would have mattered.

“Every time I’ve presented this or presented any provision that’s dealt with redistricting in any context, it has failed on a party-line basis or failed to get a second,” he says.

One of the arguments he faces, he notes, is that gerrymandering is a time-honored process, and what’s happening now is just a pendulum swing from when Democrats drew the lines.

There’s some truth to that, Yarbro adds, but some things have changed.

In the past, much of the effort was to protect incumbents. Now, with so much data available on voters, lines can be drawn to specific partisan purposes because voters nowadays tend to choose the same party up and down the ballot.

“There aren’t a lot of Donald Trump/Jeff Yarbro voters,” Yarbro points out. “In 1985, there would have been a zillion Jeff Yarbro/Ronald Reagan voters.”

Yarbro’s other redistricting legislation this past session would have called for more transparency and public input into redistricting done by legislators. He’d also like to prohibit the splitting of neighborhoods and the use of party preference data to draw lines.

But his first preference is to take the map-drawing power away from legislators entirely.

“I don’t think politicians are supposed to choose their voters,” he says. “It’s supposed to work the other way around.”

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.