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GOP Can't Erase Dems From Political Map

The GOP has faced unexpected setbacks in the redistricting process.
 
 
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The Republican Party’s favorite political tactic of late – tilting the rules of American elections to its benefit – has not been going as well as expected in the biggest political fight of all: redrawing the boundaries of electoral districts that will last for the next decade.

Regardless of how miserable the 2010 election was for Democrats – losing a US House majority and the GOP gaining 63 seats, as well as winning majorities in 20 state legislative chambers and 16 governor’s races – it does not appear that the GOP will be able to draw enough new political lines to lock down Democrats for a decade, as many party activist had hoped.

The handful of scorecards and Web sites doing the best job of tracking the all-important process of redistricting suggest that the GOP may gain a dozen House seats or more by redrawing lines, prompting Democratic stalwarts like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., not to seek reelection.

But the GOP cannot erase the fact that the country has millions of citizens who are Democrats or independents. Thus, even as Republicans have a “national ability to draw about four times as many House districts as Democrats,” according to the Washington Post, it appears they are doing more to protect incumbents than to eliminate Democratic prospects or other challengers. 

According to the Post’s scorecard, which does not list every state, the GOP stands to gain only seven or eight House seats nationally. That figure is remarkably low, considering that the GOP’s gains in 2010, up and down the political ladder, broke records that had lasted for decades.

The biggest surprise is the murky and embittered fight in Texas, where the process has been yanked away from legislators and placed before federal judges, including some questions that are before the Supreme Court.

The latest interim maps for the Lone Star State, if sustained, give Democrats a chance of winning three of the four recently created districts, essentially because GOP state legislators overreached by ignoring minorities protected by the federal Voting Rights Act.   

Currently, that state’s Republican attorney general is engaged in a war of words and legal filings with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which has authority under the Voting Rights Act to contest redistricting maps if they reduce electoral opportunities for minorities (Section 5) and ensuring minorities are not under-represented (Section 2).      

A recent Dallas Morning News editorial all but said that the process in that state could not be fairly done if left in politicians’ hands. How this will play out in court is anyone’s guess, leaving a prospect that in Texas – as well as other big states like Ohio – 2012’s federal primary elections might be delayed by the courts.

The Democrats have gotten other breaks, too. “A Nevada state court drew lines that are more favorable to the Dems than the Republican’s proposal; a Colorado state court did the same. And the federal courts in Maine forced the drawing of congressional lines this year, rather than next,” Justin Levitt, a Loyala Law School professor, wrote in an e-mail. “But I don’t think anyone believes that the substance of the maps is particularly Dem-friendly.”

But some other observers, such as Washington Post columnists who track the political ups and downs in redistricting, have noted the Democrats' luck and called Texas a “setback” for the GOP.

Levitt, whose Web site is one of the best tracking the issues, said maps from 10 states are before a mix of state and federal courts: Nevada, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Maine and Texas.

There is a way to go before this is all settled. But if the current redistricting fights were compared to a baseball game, the process is nearing the seventh inning stretch. And so far, it is not looking like a rout for the Democrats.

Steven Rosenfeld covers corporate constitutional rights for AlterNet and is author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).