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Gerrymandering Exacerbates Partisan Gridlock, Political Scientist Says


One of the Supreme Court's recent rulings has been celebrated by some as a blow against partisan gridlock. It was a case over how legislative districts are drawn, fought between the Arizona State Legislature, which used to have that power, and the state's independent redistricting commission, which was created 15 years ago. Political scientist Thomas E. Mann filed a brief in that case on behalf of the independent commission. He joined us from the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a resident scholar, to sum up the court's decision.

THOMAS E. MANN: The case against the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was that it is unconstitutional for a state to draw district lines through any means other than the state legislature based on the election's clause of the Constitution. The court ruled that states have the authority in their Constitution to delegate that authority to the people convened in a state referenda.

WERTHEIMER: The thing that the people of Arizona and the people of California and other states were trying to do is take the decision about what a political district will look like out of the hands of the politicians, who have, over the years, tended to draw districts that are friendly to incumbents.

MANN: Well, there's an obvious conflict of interest when the body redrawing the lines is made up of people who will run for re-election under the new lines. But probably more important these days because of the severe partisan polarization in our country is that that whole process, inevitably it leads to partisan redistricting, giving an advantage to the majority party and thereby having some influence over which party is in the majority in the House of Representatives in Washington.

WERTHEIMER: So that process of creating favorable districts is called gerrymandering.

MANN: Goes all the way back to the early years of the country. It's been present since the first elections to the House of Representatives. Ironically, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was targeted by a political opponent through the drawing of district lines in Virginia, where he was running for the House of Representatives. The whole point was to keep him from getting elected. He overcame that, but he was always wary of elected officials having the authority to determine their own political situation by manipulating the rules of the game.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think gerrymandering is to blame for the partisan gridlock we see in Congress?

MANN: No, the decline in competition in congressional districts has been going on for many decades. Gerrymandering is not the cause of partisan polarization, but it certainly reinforces and exacerbates the tribal wars between the parties.

WERTHEIMER: Political scientist Thomas Mann, he is the co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism." Tom, thank you.

MANN: My pleasure, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: And this note, while the Supreme Court approved the existence of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, it's not over. Next session, the court will consider a challenge to the work the commission has done. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 1, 2015 at 9:00 PM PDT
In this story, it's said that Gov. Elbridge Gerry was involved in drawing district lines in Rhode Island. In fact, as the governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed the redistricting law in that state instead.