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Modern Politics and the Constitution

Thanks to Constitution Day, students in Julie VanDusky-Allen’s World Politics class at Keuka College got a little break from regular coursework. Instead, VanDusky-Allen informed them that in honor of Constitution Day, she was treating them to a U.S. history lesson relative to voting and representation.

Introduced was Article 1, Section 2, which sets parameters for the U.S. House of Representatives,  whose 435 members are divided proportionally among the states, with more populous states sending more representatives to Congress. By contrast, each of the 50 states has two seats in the U.S. Senate.

Within a brief review of the guidelines for House members, such as a 25-year minimum age limit, residency and two-year terms, VanDusky-Allen presented students with a number – 246 percent – which signifies the increase in population from 1913, when each member of the House represented approximately 223,506 people to 2012, when each one represents approximately 722,704.

A brief debate on the pros and cons of maintaining the 435 representatives as established historically, versus increasing the number of representatives, was followed by a discussion on redistricting, gerrymandering, and minority representation.

In the 2010 U.S. Census, government workers were not allowed to ask respondents if they were legal or illegal immigrants, VanDusky-Allen told students. But as seen on a census map, with darker colors illustrating states whose populations rose, it would appear illegals – also known as “undocumented” or “unauthorized” immigrants – have helped increase the respective number of Congressional seats in states such as California, Texas and Florida, she said.

“So how is that fair that New York loses representation while another state gains due to this issue of illegal immigration?” asked Nicole King, a senior political science and history major.

Building off that question, VanDusky-Allen introduced students to the terms “redistricting,” which is the process by which new lines are drawn when population counts change the number of U.S. representatives allocated to each state, and “gerrymandering,” which is “redrawing district lines to benefit your particular political party,” she said.

Using the same base table with the letters A and B representing two different political parties, VanDusky-Allen showed students how district lines could be redrawn to favor either party.

She then pulled up a chart showing the 2010 election results for the 29 Congressional seats in New York, won by 21 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Of the 29 races, only 12 were actually competitive, and in another four races, the incumbent won by more than 90 percent of the vote, she pointed out.

“When you win by an overwhelming number of votes, who do you cater to?” VanDusky-Allen asked students. “If you don’t think about what the opposition wants, how are you representing them [too]?”

Two film clips showed efforts by groups in California and New York, known as Common Cause, which have taken stances against gerrymandering. In some cases, it’s not even one party against another, but incumbents protecting a long-held seat from any other contenders in their own party, as students heard from Democratic contender Hakeem Jeffries, who found himself literally drawn out of contention in races for a seat in the New York State Assembly.

“Brooklyn politics can be pretty rough, but that move was gangster,” Jeffries stated on film, giving a rise to students who hailed his comment as the quote of the day.

VanDusky-Allen also displayed charts on minority representation and how districts of “influence” could be created that honor the spirit of federal laws requiring states to ensure minorities have a fair opportunity to elect a representative.

Charts showing that politicians who win by high margins tend to be far more extreme in their policy-making illustrated one of the final points VanDusky-Allen tried to make with students: if there were more competition, there would be less polarization.

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