Easy to Get Lost In Redistricting Mess

Monday, March 19, 2012, Vol. 127, No. 54

The once-a-decade redistricting season may be drawing to a close four or five months later than it was supposed to.

The district lines for the Shelby County Commission will probably be set in a courtroom across the street from the County Administration Building.

And the temptation will be great to forget all about this for another 10 years when once again we will rely on those we elect to set the boundaries for the districts they will represent. They choose their voters before voters choose them.

It’s not just the County Commission. It’s the Memphis City Council and the Tennessee House and the Tennessee Senate.

The council gave final approval to a set of district lines two days before the filing deadline for candidates in last year’s city council races in which 12 of the 13 incumbents sought and won re-election.

The next races for the commission are in 2014 and six of the incumbent commissioners won’t be running again because of term limits. But those who are term limited and those who aren’t can make it harder for the new blood, which is vital to our local political process, to win office.

Term limits have gone a long way to helping guarantee some change on a regular basis.

But our politics needs a better chance to “break the mold” with those who are the usual suspects and those waiting in the wings to be the usual suspects.

Redistricting is a political process no matter who does it. But we think it is a process that should be done at the local and state levels by appointed bodies formed once every ten years for the sole purpose of drawing the fairest lines possible using existing federal laws and court cases that have set some very specific guidelines for how to do this and how not to do this.

In what part of the guidelines does it say all maps – and we mean all maps under consideration – must include as a dominant feature the locations of the homes of every incumbent on the legislative body? In what part of the law does it say that is even supposed to be a consideration?

Yet it is. And it is given greater consideration than keeping Cordova intact instead of split among several county commission districts.

Elected leaders with future political ambitions are not the only citizens capable of applying those standards. There is ample proof others may apply those standards more rigorously and with less self interest.

Twenty of the 50 states have some form of redistricting commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The idea of a redistricting commission for local government was floated during the drafting of the metro consolidation charter in 2010.

The idea is worth a look again at both levels, not to try to create some fairy tale land void of politics, but to improve our politics.