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A Partisan Game Of Gotcha!


Before Tom Delay got to Congress 19 years ago, he was an exterminator back in Texas. But the Republican Majority Leader's true calling may be as a House painter with only one color on his palette -- red. Last year, DeLay was behind a bold remap of Lone Star congressional districts that is likely to deliver control of the state's House delegation to Republicans.

Seven white Democratic incumbents were reassigned to overwhelmingly GOP districts, while other Democratic districts were packed with minority voters to minimize their influence elsewhere. The liberal oasis of Austin was sliced into three surreal districts that snake from Houston to the Mexican border. Hello, Dal?. Goodbye, Democrats. Because of retirements, one party switch, and the tough slog posed by the redrawn lines, at least seven Democratic seats could wind up in GOP hands.

Gerrymandering, of course, dates to the early days of the Republic -- to 1812, to be exact, and the handiwork of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. But the DeLay Shuffle was noteworthy in two regards. The first was the Texas GOP's skill at using computer technology to draw maps that maximize partisan advantage. The second was the fact that district lines had already been redrawn following the 2000 census. So DeLay & Co. ignored the usual custom of fiddling with districts only once after every 10-year head count.

Unrepresentative House

Traditionally more an art than a science, redistricting has been turned into a zap-thy-neighbor video game. Computers permit a partisan artiste to sift through demographic data and voting patterns to plot new lines with uncanny precision -- right down to a targeted apartment complex or trailer park.

Creative? Yes, but also very bad for the body politic. Because of gerrymandering, only 35 of the 435 House districts are remotely in play. Add to that an incumbent's power to raise massive amounts of cash, and you have a system stacked in favor of the status quo: 98.2% of incumbents won reelection in 2002, the first post-census election with newly drawn lines. "Instead of voters choosing their representatives, in over 90% of districts the representatives choose their voters," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman. "There's very little democracy in the House of Representatives."

That's of small concern to leaders of the two parties, who will be tempted to do a DeLay and commence redistricting the moment a governorship and state legislature change hands. The trouble is, shifts in state legislatures are often transitory, so the specter of continuous redistricting wars looms over an already polarized political landscape.

Redistricting experts say the recent gerrymandering games have contributed to escalating partisanship, a hollowing out of the political center, weakened clout for minorities, diminished voter participation, and even a loss of faith in democracy. "Less competitive elections result in lower turnout and give people the feeling that politics is all locked up," says Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol. "This gives a party some short-term advantage, but over the long haul it damages the political system -- especially in an era of voter disenchantment."

Pushing the Envelope

Voter cynicism is rising as more Americans realize how little choice they really have for Congress. And not all gerrymandering involves DeLay-like partisan maneuvers. An equally objectionable practice is the joint carve-up, in which incumbents of both parties conspire to protect their seats in perpetuity.

Case in point: California, where Democrats and Republicans agreed on a 2001 redistricting plan that protected all incumbents at the expense of challengers. Aside from snuffing out competition in general, the new lines were a particular affront to the state's fast-growing Mexican-American population because precious few vistas were opened for Latinos. The outcome was predictable. In 2002, only 1 out of 53 congressional races was even close -- an open seat following the Gary Condit scandal. "They essentially did away with [congressional] elections in California," says Steven Hill, an analyst at the Center for Voting & Democracy, an electoral-reform group.

Unfair redistricting doesn't just disenfranchise people unlucky enough to live in the wrong place, however. It also distorts the true partisan balance of some states -- and the nation. In Florida, where Bush won the Presidency by a hanging chad, congressional districts devised by the GOP legislature misrepresent the true strength of the two parties. So while Al Gore got half of the state's popular vote, he was victorious in just 8 of the 25 House districts. Nationally, Republicans handily won the post-2000 redistricting wars, too. The result was a Presidential race in which Gore won 500,000 more popular votes than Bush but carried only about 46% of House districts. Score one for the Red Team.

That doesn't mean that Democrats don't play the same games. Maryland Democrats three years ago removed enough GOP loyalists from the district of Connie Morella, a popular Republican moderate, to engineer her narrow defeat in 2002.

Lately, Republicans have pushed the envelope with a new maneuver called re-redistricting. After a change of power in the state capital, the newly dominant GOP hastily redraws lines previously agreed to by the legislature or the courts. That happened in Colorado when Republicans seized the state Senate in 2002 and tried to transform two competitive districts into party bastions. The move was struck down by Colorado's Supreme Court, which held that the state constitution limited redistricting to once a decade.

No constitutional bar prevented DeLay & Co. from redrawing congressional lines after the GOP gained control of the Texas statehouse in '02. The new map could turn what was a 17-15 Democratic edge into a 22-10 GOP stranglehold if all of targeted incumbents are ousted on Nov. 2. Continuous revisions, says historian Lichtman, "threaten democracy at its core."

Indeed, gerrymandering has become a centrifugal force that sends power to the outer edges of the ideological spectrum. Because the majority of districts are controlled by one party or the other, the eventual winner is really chosen in primaries dominated by Democratic leftists or Republican right-wingers who prefer head banging to compromise.

As a result, moderate Republicans are an endangered species. And a once-vibrant bloc of centrist House Dems has dwindled to two dozen from a peak of about 70 two decades ago. "The biggest scandal in politics is not campaign finance but redistricting," says Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council. "By empowering the extremes, this makes it harder to achieve solutions to big problems, and it makes it impossible to get bipartisan reform."

Republicans dismiss such criticism as the howls of political losers. They say that Dems, masters of gerrymandering for generations, didn't start caterwauling until the demographic tide turned red. Moreover, the courts thus far are taking a hands-off approach. On Apr. 28, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania plan designed to oust four Democratic incumbents and create two new GOP seats.

Still, reformers are hoping for a public backlash against unchecked partisanship. That's what happened in 2000, when Arizona adopted a constitutional amendment that shifted primary responsibility for redistricting from legislative insiders to a blue-ribbon commission. Like similar panels in New Jersey and Washington State, the commission drew relatively balanced districts. But it's not a perfect system. Because commissioners can take incumbency into account, they often protect sitting House members even as they create "fair fights" elsewhere.

There is a better way. In Iowa, a nonpartisan panel draws compact districts that give incumbents no special edge. Since 1981, it has created the nation's most competitive House seats.

Congress could further the push for competitive districts by outlawing the most egregious displays of computer line drawing and reining in re-redistricting. That's not likely to happen while DeLay remains House Majority Leader. And even modest reforms will require a wave of public revulsion. As democracy declines in the face of gerrymandering's excesses, the burning question is: Where's the outrage?


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