It’s been more than 200 years since the first sighting of the salamander in Massachusetts in 1812, foisted upon the public by Elbridge Gerry. Over those two centuries, the creature has consumed or created countless millions of useless votes by citizens while the little beasts continue to gorge themselves on the blood and flesh of democratic representation. This phenomenon has been made possible by dedicated political breeders and keepers of the voracious critter. Efforts to contain its rampage have largely been unsuccessful as its breeders and keepers have produced newer, more resistant and impervious strains.
In the early 1960s, however, three effective measures intervened to stem the unrestricted spread of the salamander across the 50 states. Two emanated from SCOTUS and one from Congress. In Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Court concluded:
Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the authority of a State Legislature in designing the geographical districts from which representatives are chosen either for the State Legislature or for the Federal House of Representatives.
In 1965, The Voting Rights Act further reined in the breeders and keepers from tinkering with district maps to advantage political interests. However, noble principles of equality and equity have been widely skirted by political parties through more sophisticated tactics, strategies, and technology, as represented by the current rush of states to gain partisan control of electoral machinery.
Inexorable increases in population concentrated in urban and suburban areas have intensified the pressures upon flexibility with respect to electoral boundaries. In 1810, Gerry’s salamander entered a nation with a population of 7.2 million, versus that of the 2020 census of 331.4 million. In the first census, in 1790, some 30,000 residents constituted a district for each representatives. As the boundaries for representatives are being redrawn for the 2022 election, that figure will be 761,900 for each of 435 districts–more than a 20-fold increase.
At the same time, however, inexorable increases in population concentrated in urban and suburban areas have intensified the pressures upon flexibility with respect to electoral boundaries. In 1810, Gerry’s salamander entered a nation with a population of 7.2 million, versus that of the 2020 census of 331.4 million. In the first census, in 1790, some 30,000 residents constituted a district for each representatives. As the boundaries for representatives are being redrawn for the 2022 election, that figure will be 761,900 for each of 435 districts–more than a 20-fold increase.
Seven states (CA, IL, MI, NY, OH, PA, and WV) each lost a seat. Texas gained two seats, while five states (CO, FL, MT, NC, and OR) each increased by one. Politically, these population shifts–losses and gains of House seats–do not neatly translate into equivalencies along partisan lines, largely due to decisions by SCOTUS along with other criteria required by the states themselves. Functionally, simple arithmetic is driving Gerry’s salamander to become an endangered species.
For example, although a Republican-dominated Texas state establishment will be eyeing the gain of two House seats, the population increases have occurred in corridors of urban/suburban districts, notably Houston, Austin, and Fort Worth. Growth figures in five Texas counties ranged from 265,900 to 638,600, as 111 counties experienced a population increase and 143 a loss, although at far smaller rates and numbers. On the other hand, five Texas cities witnessed growth from 106,000 to 204,000. In effect, the urban/suburban population growth constraints by SCOTUS criteria create serious difficulty in fitting 761,900 residents into smaller geographic areas, the ten-pounds-of-rocks-in-a-five-pound-bag dilemma. Even the most sophisticated technologies yield to simple arithmetic and physical laws of nature.
Another example is Virginia, where seven counties in the northern sector had increased population growth while a number of rural southern tier and southwest counties suffered declines.
Another example is Virginia, where seven counties in the northern sector had increased population growth while a number of rural southern tier and southwest counties suffered declines. It remains conceptually possible that some of the Commonwealth’s 11 House districts could be expanded geographically, each to accommodate more than 761,000 residents, while distributing a statewide 630,000 population increase. But the SCOTUS constraints are finite and such expansion cannot be to the deficit of more densely populated districts. The pressure in Virginia is increased because there are state legislative elections this November, also necessitating new district maps.
Similar dynamic population shifts will occur in other states, especially where House seats are lost and gained. Strategists for the national party congressional campaigns have been busily devising plans to deal with a greater weight of rocks for a smaller set of carry bags. Even at this juncture, it is not possible to predict whether or to what degree the census figures may affect the majority bloc in the House, presently a narrow six-seat margin in favor of the Democrats. As with most political punditry, the multiple moving parts regarding population dynamics, state commissions and legislatures, incumbents, and unknowns contrive to discourage too firm a prognosis.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder has been repeating a simple message in television interviews: “Democrats do not have to cheat; Republicans do.” Essentially, Holder is suggesting that the dynamics of the nation’s population shifts toward increasing concentrations of residents in urban and suburban areas traditionally favoring Democrats operate as an antidote to gerrymandering. That proposition will be tested in the coming months as commissions and state legislatures devote efforts to map drawing for the 2022 midterms.
One political canard or convention – that which holds the party in the White House loses seats in Congress at midterm – may also fall to the population arithmetic, leaving Democrats with a continuing majority.
Luke (12:2) prophesied that all will be revealed: in this case, much of it in time for the 2022 midterms. Others are hopeful that population arithmetic places Elbridge Gerry’s iconic, surreptitious salamander on the endangered species list, headed toward extinction.