Redistricting and Representation

On November 8, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a discussion on “Redistricting and Representation.” The discussion was moderated by the Honorable Patti B. Saris, and featured the following speakers: Moon Duchin, Jamal Greene, and Gary King.

The program served as the 2062nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you and to call to order the 2062nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Let me begin with a special welcome to those coming to us from the Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation’s program on redistricting reform, which is co-sponsoring this evening’s event. A special thank you to Miles Rapoport, a Senior Fellow at the Ash Center and a member of the Academy’s new Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship for making this collaboration possible. I am also pleased to note that tonight’s event is being live-streamed on the Academy’s website.

The topic of this evening’s program, “Redistricting and Representation” extends back to the earliest days of the Academy, yet remains relevant today. The American Academy was founded in 1780 by 62 scholar-patriots, including John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin, in the midst of the still-ongoing revolution. They recognized that the new nation they were building would need an institution dedicated to collecting and disseminating knowledge that would “advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The founders hoped that the collection and dissemination of “useful knowledge” would help create the educated citizenry needed to lead the new nation out of revolution into independence and democracy.

Among one of our earliest fellows was a man whose name will be familiar to most everyone in this room: Elbridge Gerry. Inducted into the Academy while serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1781, Mr. Gerry would go on to become a United States Congressman, Governor of Massachusetts, and Vice-President under James Madison. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, but refused to sign the Constitution in 1787 because it lacked a bill of rights.

It is not Mr. Gerry’s political idealism, though, that bring his name to mind tonight. Instead, it is an oddly-shaped state senate district that Gerry approved while serving as governor of Massachusetts in February 1812. His hope was that by reapportioning electoral districts along partisan lines, he could secure future victories for his Democratic-Republican Party in Essex County, a Federalist stronghold.

The Gerry-ManderSeveral opponents of Gerry’s actions have since been credited with coining the term “gerrymander” – a critical reference to the salamander-like shape of the district. However, a political cartoon that appeared in the March 26, 1812 edition of The Boston Gazette popularized the term. “Gerrymandering” has been part of the American political landscape ever since.

Over the years, the Academy has addressed the question of redistricting, particularly with relation to race, in multiple volumes of Daedalus, the Academy’s quarterly journal.  In a 1965 issue, Academy Fellow James Q. Wilson explored the case of Representative Charles Weltner of Georgia who changed his vote from “no” to “yes” on the 1964 Civil Rights Act after more African-Americans were added to his district. Weltner became the only Democrat from the Deep South to vote for the Act.

In 2001, Academy member Kenneth Prewitt, who had been the Director of the Census Bureau, spoke at a Stated Meeting on “Census 2000 and the Fuzzy Boundary Separating Politics and Science.” He highlighted the difficulty of squaring the undeniably political nature of the census with new scientific tools for measuring population. As he said:

“The census was political from the very beginning and remains so. Although the science of measurement is used to complete the task as accurately as possible, the central purpose of the census remains: to shift power from one set of interests to another. …  If the census is both political and scientific, how shall we accomplish the one without compromising the other?”

This challenge persists. In March of this year, the Supreme Court struck down redistricting on a racial basis as unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. As a result, congressional maps in North Carolina were ordered to be re-drawn. However, the court has found it more difficult to make a firm ruling on partisan gerrymandering. Tonight’s program will explore the legal context around several current cases involving redistricting, and will examine some potential solutions to the problem.

In recent years, partisanship seems to have extended its reach into every facet of American life, and in some instances has come to threaten that most basic of all democratic principles: access to the ballot. As trust in democratic institutions erodes, it is important that all voters feel confident that their voices are heard when selecting their representatives.

As an institution that has long been dedicated to supporting civil and nonpartisan dialogue on important issues, the Academy is a good venue for this conversation. We are especially pleased to be hosting this program now, as the Academy is launching a major new research initiative, the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. What are the skills, values, and perspectives that make a person a responsible and engaged citizen in the 21st century? How are those qualities developed and how can we strengthen them? The Commission will be co-chaired by Danielle Allen, Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Eric Liu, Founder and CEO of Citizen University. The Commission will be announced later this month.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program to the Honorable Patti Saris, who introduced the speakers and moderated the discussion.

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