Redistricting Returns with a Vengeance

Voters, beware. Redistricting is back. Every 10 years it revisits us like a recurring plague. This year's shenanigans show just why the renewed civic pride in the wake of September's terrorist attacks won't bring many disenchanted Americans back to the polls.

After the release of new census numbers, all legislative districts in the nation must be redrawn to make sure that they are closely equal in population. In a large state, that means about 640,000 residents for each U.S. House district.

Whichever political party controls the line-drawing process has the God-like powers to guarantee themselves majority control and make or break individual political careers. They rely on "packing" and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as possible, and "cracking" an opponent's natural base into different districts. Powerful computers and software have made this process of unnatural selection ever more sophisticated and precise.

Does it make a difference? You bet it does. In Virginia, the Democrats in 2001 won their first statewide race for governor since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds' majority. How? That's right -- Republicans drew the district lines.

One of the best examples of partisan gerrymandering was California's congressional plan in the 1980s. The late Congressman Phil Burton, its chief architect, called it his "contribution to modern art." One district was a ghastly looking, insect-like polygon with 385 sides.

The result? In the 1984 elections the Democrats increased their share of California's house seats to 60 percent even as Ronald Reagan's landslide win helped Republican congressional candidates win more votes than Democrats in the state.

This year in various states one party indeed has stuck it to the other -- just ask a Republican who was mugged in Georgia or Maryland or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan or Pennsylvania. In all those states and more, one party or the other used their redistricting advantage to wipe out seats of the opposition.

But this year the real story is that both parties have often colluded to take on their real enemy: the voters. This year will go down in political history for the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a whole new level. With half the states finished with redistricting, the current round may be the most anti-democratic ever.

Take California. The California Democratic Party controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their advantage rather then expand it. Incumbents took no chances. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic U.S. House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the powerful Democratic Party consultant in charge of redistricting.

The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez stated "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in."

California's Republican Party, which has vociferously opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute. That's because their pliant incumbents also were bought off with the promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough re-election battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free from serious competition for the next ten years.

The story has been the same in state after state. The Wall Street Journal in a November editorial on "The Gerrymander Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 U.S. House seats will be competitive next year. Already fewer than one in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins in 1998 and 2000.

The ones hurt by these back-room deals are the voters. For most voters, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we reform the redistricting process or turn to more innovative voting methods like proportional representation.

There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. Following on the heels of Florida's election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our already shaky political system.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and co-authors of "Whose Vote Counts?" (Beacon Press 2001).

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