The following commentary spotlights the next step
in the breakdown in traditional redistricting of legislative
district lines. Versions of the commentary have appeared or will
appear in the leading papers in Forth Worth (TX), Peoria (IL) and
Re-redistricting is an
ugly power grab
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
June 29, 2003
It's baaa-ack. Just when Texas state legislators thought it safe to
be home for awhile, Gov. Rick Perry has called again for
congressional redistricting in a special session. Given the high
stakes involved, expect more fireworks like Democratic legislators'
midnight escape to Oklahoma last month to kill earlier efforts to
redraw district lines.
For many Americans the fierce partisan
battle over redistricting must seem far out of proportion to its
importance, especially when compared to pressing issues like taxes,
education and jobs. But policy-making is grounded in the electoral
structures that determine representation, and no part of that
structure is more important than the legislative district lines that
carve up the state and determine local partisan majorities.
ask House Majority leader Tom DeLay, who openly promotes Texas
"re-redistricting." In 1991, Texas Democrats gerrymandered DeLay and
his fellow Republicans so effectively that they took more than
two-thirds of seats with only half the votes. The chief architect of
that plan -- one of three state legislators on redistricting
committees to win newly-created seats -- was Congresswoman Eddie
Bernice Johnson, who admitted in 1997 that the redistricting process
"is not one of kindness. It is not one of sharing. It is a power
Whoever controls redistricting -- technically state
legislators, but in practice a small number of political leaders and
consultants -- has the God-like powers to guarantee not only which
party wins most seats, but also to make or break individual
political careers. The computer tools are increasingly powerful,
using tactics like "packing" and "cracking": pack as many opponents
into as few districts as possible, or crack an opponent's political
base into several districts.
It was bad enough when redistricting
occurred only at the start of each decade, but now the greedy
partisan grab has spurred a new phenomenon -- mid-decade
"re-redistricting." Recently Colorado Republicans jammed through a
revised plan to shore up their one vulnerable incumbent. Now Texas
Republicans have decided that gaining as many as seven additional
seats is worth any editorial outcry and partisan fury that their
upcoming power grab will inspire.
Does redistricting make a
difference? You bet it does. Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their
first gubernatorial race since 1989. But Republicans went from
barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How?
That's right -- Republicans drew the district lines before the
In many states, one party stuck it to the other in
redistricting. Take Florida, where Democrats are strong enough to
hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the
presidential race. But with full control of drawing the district
lines, Republicans hold an overwhelming 18 of 25 U.S. House seats.
In 2002 Maryland Democrats picked up two of the state's Republicans'
four U.S. House seats as a direct result of redistricting.
dangerous to democracy such partisan power grabs are, however, the
problem is more fundamental and sweeping. The real story of the last
redistricting cycle was that both parties generally colluded in a
crass way to take on their real enemy: the voters. "Incumbent
protection" was raised to a whole new level.
The result was that in
2002, just four incumbents -- the fewest in history -- lost to
non-incumbent challengers. In California, every single incumbent won
by landslide margins. It was no coincidence that Democratic
incumbents forked over $20,000 apiece to the redistricting
consultant to draw them a safe seat, and that the consultant was the
brother of one of the incumbents. To buy their cooperation,
Republican incumbents were given safe seats too. California voters
were the real losers.
The real problem is the very power we grant
legislators. If power corrupts, giving legislators the chance to
grab power is inevitably corrupting. We hardly should be surprised
that our leaders take advantage of their power to control their own
electoral destiny. The blame falls on those who wring their hands
but take no action to fight for rule changes to put the public
interest in redistricting over partisan interest.
Congress has full
authority to set national standards that could take redistricting
out of the hands of incumbents and establish independent,
nonpartisan redistricting commissions, or at least curb the most
flagrant abuses of gerrymandering. Unfortunately, it's been years
since a single bill has been proposed to provide a nonpartisan
approach to redistricting.
It's high time to admit that legislators
cannot be both for democracy and for the rigging of that democracy.
Following on the heels of the 2000 election debacle, partisan
redistricting only further undermines confidence in our political
Rob Richie is the executive
director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org). Steven Hill is
the Center's senior analyst, and author of "Fixing Elections: The
Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com).