I live in Mississippi House District 37, which stretches from the eastern border of Lowndes County, through a corridor in West Point so narrow that my son could throw a baseball from one side to the next, and on into West Oktibbeha. The representative himself lives in New Hope. He sells insurance there, and works very hard to make sure that the lives of the people who live and work in New Hope get all the advantages from his legislative work that they can.
But I live in Clay County. The work that representative does barely touches me, when it touches me at all. I assume the same is true of those who live in West Oktibbeha. So why is he my representative?
After the most recent census, Mississippi Republicans re-drew districts in such a way that most incumbents were protected, and those who weren’t were Democrats. To be fair, Republicans did this because they had for years been on the other end of that stick–Democrats were just as bad about this process, which is known as gerrymandering, as Republicans are now. Politicians also can draw district lines without fear of judicial consequences. The Supreme Court does not usually get involved in gerrymandering cases. As long as districts have roughly the same number of constituents, the court looks the other way–with one exception: when minorities cannot win a proportionate share of representation. In Mississippi, what that has meant is that legislative districts get drawn by race and then geography.
One could argue that gerrymandering works well for Mississippi. We do, after all, have the highest proportion of African-American representation of any state legislature.
At the risk of sounding perverse, though, let’s consider the possibility that we are better served by legislators when districts have more geographical integrity. With whom do I have more in common: a politician who lives 20 miles away, or a politician who lives in my own county? Regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation, will representatives be more likely to find common ground with me if I actually see them more often?