Article II, Sections 4-6 of the Tennessee Constitution requires the General Assembly to establish its 99 House, (no more than) 33 Senate, and (currently) 9 U.S. Congressional districts after each new decennial census is made available by the U.S. Census Bureau. Since the most recent U.S. Census was completed in 2010, one of the most important jobs before the 107th General Assembly is the redistricting of Tennessee. The Rose Institute of State and Local Government released a national report that analyses redistricting requirements state by state; but according to the Tennessee Constitution, the Legislature is allowed to use geography, political subdivisions, substantially equal population and other criteria as factors, provided that such apportionment complies with federal and state laws. The Tennessee Constitution also stipulates that, 1) counties having two or more representatives shall be divided into separate districts, 2) in a district composed of two or more counties each county shall adjoin at least one other county of such district, and 3) no county shall be divided in forming such a district. Obviously, each district must be represented by a qualified voter from that district. The Comptroller’s Guide to Local Redistricting provides a good overview of the technological issues involved, and although it is geared towards the County-level in 2000, it is still mostly applicable to state-wide redistricting in 2010.
All of this might sound like a long list of requirements, but in practice the General Assembly is given rather broad discretion to draw the district lines, and where the lines are drawn can have serious repercussions for how difficult it is to remove an incumbent from office, how difficult it is for second or third parties to gain election, or how difficult it is for minority voters to make their vote matter. This practice of drawing district lines to benefit a particular candidate, party, or group of citizens is called “gerrymandering.” In Tennessee, the Majority and Minority leaders each prepare a redistricting plan based on the new Census that is submitted for General Assembly approval, with the Governor retaining veto rights over the winning plan. Since the Republicans currently hold a significant majority in the Tennessee House and Senate as well as the Governor’s seat, their plan will ultimately decide the course of elections in Tennessee for at least the next decade and maybe even longer. Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-26) has already threatened to be “as fair to Democrats as they’ve been to us,” a strange threat considering that the current Democrat-drawn districts in Tennessee have led to overwhelming Republican victories in recent years. Still, his threat might not be empty words. A Republican-drawn district map could help unseat Rep. Jim Cooper (D-5), whose Democratic election to Congress has been nearly a foregone conclusion in Tennessee since 1983. Currently only 2 of the 9 total U.S. Congressional seats for Tennessee are still held by Democrats.
Sen. Mark Norris (R-32) has filed four Bills addressing the upcoming redistricting: SB0001, SB0002, SB0003, and SB0005. SB0001 updates Tenn. Code Ann. § 3-1-102 from the year 2000 Census to the 2010 Census, but also adds that “contiguity by water” is sufficient to satisfy the Constitutional requirement that districts shall be composed of adjoining areas. Depending on how the maps are drawn, contiguity by water can either include areas in districts that logically make sense but are only separated by rivers or lakes, or it could be used to adjoin areas that have no true relationship (especially given the amount of waterways in our state). SB0002 updates Tenn. Code Ann. § 3-1-103 from the year 2000 Census to the 2010 Census, clarifies that the redistricting based on the 2010 Census will not affect the offices held by those elected before November 2012, and stipulates that the redistricting of County legislative bodies will not affect State offices. SB0003 updates Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-16-103 from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census and also adds the “contiguity by water” allowance. SB0005 adds language to Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-16-102 making it the legislative intent of the General Assembly to comply with all U.S. and Tennessee Constitutional laws and applicable judicial decisions in the redistricting process.