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University of Idaho law professor tackles the problem of political gerrymandering

By Garrett Cabeza Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Cases of political gerrymandering, or the manipulation of electoral district boundaries for political gain, have been occurring domestically almost since the United States declared its independence from England, according to Benjamin Cover, a visiting associate professor at the University of Idaho College of Law.

Cover addressed the League of Women Voters of Moscow on Wednesday about the history of gerrymandering and detailed his solution – soft districts.

“Whoever gets to draw the lines has amazing power – awesome power,” Cover said. “Awesome in the sense that it can be abused.”

Cover said state legislatures traditionally have the power to draw district lines, but no one trusts politicians not to abuse their authority.

Cover said one of the primary responses to prevent gerrymandering is to take away districting power from legislators through ballot measures and to give that power to independent districting commissions, such as Idaho has done.

Cover said his alternative would be to make the districts “softer” by allowing voters, specifically those residing close to a boundary, to cross district lines to vote. In essence, he said, the voter would be allowed to choose which district he or she wants to vote in.

“Here’s what I like about it,” Cover said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen and neither will the map makers. Nobody will know what’s going to happen.”

He said soft districting could result in more competitive elections.

“It might address gerrymandering because you can’t gerrymander,” Cover said of his idea, which is in an early stage.

“Let’s let people choose their districts and then redraw the districts based on what people want,” Cover said. “Districting is the most powerful decision made in our elections and citizens have very little control over it. And we are so obsessed with the individual right to cast a ballot, why don’t we get a little more interested in having more of a say in what districts we’re assigned to?”

Cover said the term “gerrymander” originates from two sources – former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and salamander.

Cover said Massachusetts politicians in 1812 decided to change district boundaries within the state. The districts were drawn in a way that one looked like a salamander, Cover said.

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