The Tennessee General Assembly will begin the required and always partisan task of redrawing congressional districts sometime after the results of the 2010 Census are released in March.
A proposal on the federal level by a Tennessee congressman would allow for greater public scrutiny of the process, which would be a service to residents whose lives will be affected by redistricting for the next decade.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Nashville, is sponsoring a bill that would require entities in charge of redistricting in each state to set up a website and solicit public input online and through public hearings. Redistricting maps would have to be posted at least 10 days before a vote on their adoption, along with the justifications for the new district boundaries.
Cooper's bill would benefit the public by providing more openness to a process that often is an exercise in partisan power politics. The only drawback might be that some would see it as an unwarranted federal intrusion into a process that is reserved for the individual states.
Congressional districts are redrawn every decade after census results are released. In Tennessee, as in most states, the Legislature is in charge of redistricting. A few other states use nominally bipartisan commissions to do the work.
Republicans control the Tennessee General Assembly now, and for the first time in state history will be in charge of redistricting.
Though Cooper's a Democrat, his proposal wouldn't seem to have much of an effect on the balance of power in Tennessee's congressional delegation. After the midterm elections, only two of Tennessee's nine House members are Democrats - Cooper of Nashville and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis. It's unlikely that the Republican state legislators would be able to redraw their districts in a way to affect the partisan balance of those cities.
Redistricting doesn't just affect Congressional representation, however. State House and Senate districts will be redrawn, too, and the likelihood of political gerrymandering is much higher for state legislative districts.
Redistricting isn't a purely partisan endeavor, of course. Districts must contain roughly the same number of people and be contiguous, for example. But whichever party is in power typically tries to arrange the districts to maintain or increase its advantage.
With Republicans firmly in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives, Cooper's bill faces an uphill battle. Many GOP House members likely will be reluctant to impose such a requirement on the individual states.
But even if it doesn't become a federal law, Tennessee lawmakers should consider adopting a similar measure on their own. Doing so would provide their constituents with a way to monitor and give input into one of the foundations of representative government. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have anything to fear from greater scrutiny. Openness is a virtue that knows no party.
Transparency won't remove partisanship from redistricting, but it would benefit the people whose representation in the Legislature and in Congress will be affected for the next 10 years.