Wall Street Journal
Review & Outlook (Editorial)
November 7, 2001
Americans will go to the polls a
year from this week in the quaint belief that they will be electing
a new Congress. But the real story is that nearly all of those races
have already been decided -- by politicians in backrooms and long
before anyone even votes.
The reason is the bipartisan
scandal known as redistricting, or more colorfully as the
"gerrymander." That is the process by which state politicians sit
down every 10 years to carve up Congressional districts. This time
they're doing it with an even more blatant mix than usual of
partisanship and incumbent protection. The result is that perhaps
only 30 of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will even
be competitive next year.
The process is turning American
democracy on its head. The House was supposed to be the legislative
body closest to the people, the one built to reflect swift changes
in the popular will. But nowadays the Senate is more open to popular
opinion, despite six-year terms, because no one has yet figured out
how to gerrymander an entire state.
Gerrymanders have been part of
American history at least since the term was coined in 1812. But
today politicians use computer data bases to build districts so
precise in their demographics that they resemble bugs splattered on
a windshield. The line drawers know enough about party registration
to divide people on different sides of the same street.
This year, as usual, both parties
are in on the scandal. But because Republicans have more House
incumbents, and more governors, they're likely to get the partisan
advantage, creating perhaps a dozen new safe GOP seats. Michael
Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics, says the way
redistricting is going "will make it next to impossible for the
Democrats to retake the House." This may be good for Republicans,
but it's bad for democracy. A year ago more than 20% of the entire
House had no major party challenger. George W. Bush won Florida by
only 537 votes, but 10 of the 21 Florida House incumbents ran unopposed.
Gerrymanders can produce
effective disenfranchisement. Witness the scam Republicans pulled
off this year in Utah to defeat the state's Democratic Congressman,
Jim Matheson. The state's GOP legislature carved up his urban Salt
Lake City district and mixed city neighborhoods with 14 rural
counties. The GOP plan moved 684,000 people from one district to
another, while competing plans moved fewer than one-tenth as many.
Democrats won 41% of the vote in House races in Utah last year, but
next year they'll struggle to get even one of the state's three
House seats. (See the nearby maps.)
And that's not the worst. In
Michigan, which Al Gore carried by five percentage points, a GOP
gerrymander has stuffed six Democratic incumbents into only three
seats. The likely result is that a nine-to-seven Democratic majority
delegation will become a nine-to-six GOP majority. In a burst of
candor, one of the stuffed Democrats, Representative Jim Barcia,
admitted that "If the shoe were on the other foot, we would be doing
the same thing."
And Democrats did precisely that
in Georgia, pushing four GOP incumbents into two districts and
creating four ungainly new Atlanta districts tilted toward
Democrats. Stu Rothenberg of Roll Call newspaper says Georgia's
legislature should be "publicly humiliated" for its brazen line
drawing. One new district has four strange peninsulas that resemble
in turn: Long Island, Cape Cod, Malaysia and the genie from the
It's tempting to say "that's
politics" and assume that the partisanship balances out over time.
But that can be a very long time. Meanwhile, the public will is
stymied, fewer elections are competitive and more and more Americans
decide not to vote at all. What's the point in voting if you know
the outcome in advance?
We know that courts or bipartisan
"commissions" don't always do a better job than politicians in the
messy work of redistricting. But both Canada and Britain appoint
boundary commissions that somehow are universally respected by all
parties and create far more competitive seats. This year in the
U.S., both Iowa and Arizona used nonpartisan bodies to draw compact
districts, with much success.
That was the model Ronald Reagan
had in mind when he warned Americans in 1989 about the "conflict of
interest" legislators have in drawing their own districts. He said
gerrymandering would remain a "national scandal" so long as the
public was uninformed about how it renders many elections
meaningless. Mr. Reagan's sensible voice has been stilled, so we
hope other leaders will take up the call. Perhaps former
Congressional leaders without a stake in the process can help. The
sad truth is that incumbents and party hacks are using this year's
gerrymanders to fix next year's elections in advance. It's no
consolation that this time around the smarter, more brazen hacks are Republicans.