In 1965, it was called “reapportionment” and some members of the Indiana Senate Democrat Caucus were not shy to express their self-interest.
I was there. As a legislative intern, I was assigned to the reapportionment committee of The Indiana Senate chaired by David Rogers of Bloomington. My job was to carry proposed maps from University computer-types to the committee, its members, and the caucus. For reasons that still escape me, Senator Rogers invited me to a private meeting of the caucus where I heard direct expressions of electoral self-interest:
“This map will wipe me out,” said one. “No way,” said another, while those benefitting remained silent. No one mentioned fairness and effects on election turnout.
Reapportionment was required under Baker vs. Carr (1962) and subsequent cases affecting state legislatures and The United States House of Representatives. The idea was “one person, one vote.” Starting in the late 1930s, the phrase was used widely among less developed countries coincidentally with calls for universal suffrage. Reformers in The United Kingdom were especially active because the right to vote was restricted and biased. For example, a person with property in several locations could vote more than once while others could not vote at all. With some exceptions, equitable voting became the norm by 1950.
The United States moved more slowly. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Congressional districts varied widely in population with some having 500,000 persons, others 1.5 million, in the same state. State legislatures were similarly mal apportioned, especially state senates which were created with the national model in mind. (The United States Senate has two senators per state regardless of population.) The system under represented growing urban areas; it also under represented African-Americans.
Indiana was not about to apportion fairly until required by the court decisions. New maps were passed in The Indiana Senate on February 4, 1965, and a month later by The Indiana House. The political party in power naturally drew maps in its favor.
In 2016, Indiana finds itself the fifth worst apportioned state (from the University of Chicago Law Review). Numbers show the story: 56 % of Indiana State Senate races were unopposed; 44 % of races for The Indiana House were unopposed; in The Indiana House of Representatives, Democrats earned 39 % of the total state-wide vote, but elected only 27 % of the available seats: in The Indiana Senate, Democrats had 40.9 % of the popular vote, 28 % of available seats.
Legislatures cannot draw fair maps. Nationwide, the party in power attempts to consolidate its power. The bias is as strong as gravity. The most compelling solution is to establish an independent commission to draw fair district boundaries. A study commission has proposed creation of an independent commission in Indiana. Seven of ten study commission members voted in favor of the proposal, but three persons, two former senators and one incumbent senator, voted against, stating that the proposal is a solution in search of a problem. Curiously, they might be correct– while still being terribly wrong.
The intellectual problem is that no one has correlated ineffective government with mal apportioned legislatures. Some decisions, especially budget choices, might be affected by malapportionment, but quantifying is impossible. Voter turnout probably is smaller in uncompetitive districts, but even that phenomenon does not automatically translate to bad government. This thinking could justify senators voting against creation of an independent commission, but the justification is weak. The only other justification is for legislators to maintain their seats and for their party to maintain super power beyond power proportionately allocated to them by voters.
To support reform, legislators must be personally considerate of the electorate. (Is that idea naïve?) Even if legislators do not see a problem, they must acknowledge that millions of other people do see a problem, and that responding to that perception is as important, significant and compelling as any other issue. The ideals and theories of democracy are theoretically sound and uniformly accepted by all Americans. Those ideals insure a public perception of honesty and fairness. They reduce or eliminate the risks of challenges to the entire electoral system.