Ending the Gerrymander Wars

By The New York Times Editorial Page
Published May 30th 2005 in The New York Times
Congressional redistricting has become a blood sport. Texas kicked off a new era in 2003 when it redrew its lines for a second time after the 2000 census to give the Republicans five more seats. Now, there could be similar midcensus redistricting in several other states. In these partisan machinations, voters are the losers. The new lines eliminate contested elections, and contribute to the bitterly divisive atmosphere in Washington. A new bill in Congress calls for national standards for drawing Congressional districts. It would vastly improve the functioning of our ailing democracy.

Gerrymandering has always been part of American politics, but it has reached disturbing new lows. Party operatives now use powerful computers to draw lines that guarantee their party as many seats as possible. The longstanding tradition that Congressional districts are redrawn only once every 10 years was obliterated in Texas in 2003, when Tom DeLay pushed through a partisan ''re-redistricting.'' Democrats are now talking about doing the same thing in states they control, such as Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana.

Partisan redistricting puts the interests of political parties ahead of the voters. The parties want districts they know they can win, and they have done a good job of creating them. In the last election, there were only a handful of competitive Congressional races; most races were decided by landslides.

The voters, however, are best served by competitive districts in which candidates need to work to win their votes. The decline of swing districts is having a corrosive effect on Congress, which is more than ever made up of members from the extremes of both parties, who do not need to appeal to voters in the middle for re-election.

Redistricting reform is difficult to achieve at the state level. Most state legislatures have a vested interest in the status quo. And in these partisan times, a party that controls a state government is likely to oppose any redistricting that gives Congressional seats to the other side. National standards are needed that would require every state to draw Congressional districts in a way that put the voters' interests first.

Representative John Tanner, a Tennessee Democrat, introduced a bill last week that would do just that. His bill would create nonpartisan redistricting commissions in every state. The commissions would be prohibited from taking the voters' party affiliations or voting history into account when drawing lines. Instead, the bill would emphasize continuity of counties, municipalities and neighborhoods. The bill would also limit Congressional redistricting to once every 10 years.

It is no surprise that the bill's sponsor, Mr. Tanner, is a moderate Democrat from Tennessee. Southern Democrats, Northern Republicans and moderates from both parties and all regions are the ones being pushed out of Congress by partisan redistricting, and re-redistricting.

Drawing less partisan lines would reinvigorate the center in American politics, and make House members pay more attention to their constituents and less to their party leaders. That is why Mr. Tanner's bill is likely to have a hard time in today's Congress. It is also why it is important for everyone who wants to improve American politics to support it.