Al Cross: Gerrymanders distorts the legislature and damages our political system

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The word “representative” is both a noun and an adjective. In the Kentucky General Assembly he became primarily a noun, meaning a member of the House of Representatives.

That’s because the House isn’t as representative of Kentucky as it should be, given the results of this month’s election and the district lines on which they were held.

The lines were drawn by Republicans who control the General Assembly and will have 80 of 100 House seats and 31 of 38 Senate seats when the legislature convenes in January.

Kentucky has become a red state, but not so red.

When Donald Trump won 65% of Kentucky’s presidential vote in 2016, his fellow Republicans won 64 corresponding House seats, their first majority since 1920. In 2020, while a damaged Trump still got 63%, Republicans won won 75 seats, benefiting from the accelerating four-year decline of the state’s Democratic Party from a Republican governor (who narrowly lost in 2019 because of his personality, not his party).

The 2020 census meant that district lines in every state had to be redrawn to even out the population, and in many states Republicans took full advantage of it, breaking standards and breaking up communities.

In Tennessee, where Nashville had its own congressional district for more than a century, Republican lawmakers divided the capital into three, forcing the retirement of longtime Democratic Representative Jim Cooper, who will be replaced by the eighth Republican in the state’s nine-member House. delegation.

Some Kentucky Republicans had similar ideas for Louisville, where Democratic Representative John Yarmuth announced his retirement in October 2021, before the lines were drawn. But the rest of the Kentucky delegation, all Republicans, apparently didn’t like the changes that would be required in their own districts, so GOP lawmakers left the Louisville district largely unchanged.

They played with Kentucky’s second largest city, Lexington, but to little effect. But they did political violence to the third largest city, Bowling Green; the state’s other major metropolitan area, Northern Kentucky; and the state capital of Frankfurt.

The districts of Democratic State Representatives Patti Minter of Bowling Green and Buddy Wheatley of Covington were drastically changed, eliminating from them some of the districts where they had run strongest in the past, and both were defeated. Wheatley’s original hometown of Ludlow was removed from his district.

Frankfort, a Democratic city, has been abused in two ways: by placing it in the First Congressional District, which flows to the Mississippi River, one of the most extravagant gerrymanders of all time; and placing it in a state senate district that included enough northern Kentucky suburbs that former Senator Gex (“Jay”) Williams of Verona won.

“We were facing unprecedented gerrymandering,” Minter said in her concession speech, also blaming “the big spending of an outside super PAC” that tied her to President Biden and the “extreme voter suppression” by local election officials, who placed no polls downtown. Bowling Green or near Western Kentucky University, where she teaches.

But the most important factor was the new neighborhood. Democrats, in their lawsuit against the House plan, used calculations that showed that in her old district, Minter had a 77% chance of being elected, but in the new, only 33%.

In his decision against the Democrats last week, Franklin Circuit Thomas Wingate wrote that they had “successfully established at trial that [the legislative and congressional plans] are partisan gerrymanders,” but “the Court must base its decision not on what is perceived to be fairer or fairer, but rather on what is provided for in the Kentucky Constitution,” which he argues cannot not be stretched enough to prohibit it. , unlike the constitutions of a few other states.

Unfortunately, these fundamental guiding documents largely fail to address a fundamental flaw in our system, the almost purely political nature of gerrymandering, which was once an art but is now a science. “Partisan gerrymandering is not a new concept,” Wingate wrote, “but rampant changes in technology have made it more widespread and easier to detect.”

But the courts have struggled to move from detection to deterrence, and in states like Kentucky, where constitutional changes cannot be proposed by voters, redistricting continues to distort legislatures, reducing public confidence. in our system and increasing political polarization.

As both parties have made constituencies easier to win for incumbents, they have made primary elections crucial – and this pushes both parties further apart on the political spectrum, reducing the chances of moderates being elected and bipartisan cooperation. Instead of elections where voters choose their politicians, the game is rigged by politicians choosing their voters.

In increasingly urban Kentucky, cities across the state are losing their representative voice. Lawmakers must ponder the seal and motto of the state, in which a cross-border commuter and a city-dweller shake hands and seem to agree that “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not those of the UK. He was the Louisville Courier Journal’s longest-serving political writer (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor for Al Cross’ column.

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