National Redistricting News

April 2001 - May 2001

More redistricting news


Roll Call
Between the Lines
By John Mercurio
May 7, 2001

Back to the Drawing Board.

A new Congressional map that would have pitted Republican Reps. Jim Nussle and James Leach against each other next year was rejected by the Iowa state Senate last week. The Legislature will now be forced to return to work to approve a remap plan.

On a 27-21 vote, the state Senate rejected a map drawn by Iowa's non-partisan Legislative Service Bureau that had been criticized by Republicans. It received the vote of only one GOP state Senator.

The proposed lines included significant changes for practically every member of the Iowa delegation. In addition to throwing Leach and Nussle into the same seat, it would have reduced Republicans' strength in Rep. Greg Ganske's (R)4th district, making it even more vulnerable to a Democratic takeover. Ganske is giving up the seat for a campaign against Sen. Tom Harkin (D).

In an interview last week Iowa state House Speaker Brent Siegrist (R), who may run to replace Ganske, based his opposition to the plan on the idea that "population variances" under the bureau's plan are too high, meaning that the number of people in each district varies greatly. But Democrats say Siegrist may be motivated by his own political concerns. They note that the current plan offers him two unappealing options in 2002: running in Ganske's Democratic-leaning open seat, which does not include Siegrist's base of Council Bluffs, or a GOP stronghold in western Iowa that Rep. Tom Latham (R) is also eyeing.

Latham would relocate to accommodate a move by Nussle under a plan supported by some GOP officials, and Siegrist said he thinks a second map could create a Republican stronghold that would pit him against Boswell. "I've known Leonard for a long time. He's a great guy, but he would have a tough time if he got tossed in here," the Speaker said.

The LSB will produce another map, which the Legislature only has the option of voting up or down. But if it moves to a third proposal, legislators can make changes to the plan. Although Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack has veto power over the lines, and some lawmakers are already predicting that the state Supreme Court will end up drawing the lines for Iowa's five House districts.

The bureau was first assigned to draw House maps following the 1980 census. In 1981 the Legislature twice rejected bureau maps, ultimately drawing one themselves. In 1991 legislators accepted the bureau's first map.

Unfinished Business.

When the Indiana Legislature adjourned April 29, it assured that a five-member commission controlled by Democrats would put the finishing touches on Congressional redistricting in the state.

The commission will meet May 10. Indiana is losing one of its 10 seats in the House, and the body is expected to approve a plan that could pit GOP Reps. Brian Kerns and Steve Buyer against each other next year.

The commission consists of two Republicans -state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Garton and state Sen. Sue Landske, who chairs the elections committee - and three Democrats - House Speaker John Gregg, state House elections committee Chairman Thomas Kromkowski and state Rep. Ed Mahern, chairman of the state House redistricting committee. Mahern was appointed by Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon.

Garton, who will begin the commission meeting as chairman, was glum about the prospects of the Republicans in the process.

"I can count,"he told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It's 3-to-2, and I'm sure I'll be replaced as chairman pretty quickly."

Charles in Charge?

Another legislative leader looking at a seat in the House next year might be Georgia state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker (D). Bill Shipp's Georgia, a newsletter covering the ins and outs of the state's politics, reports that Democrats who control the remapping process will attempt to significantly weaken Rep. Charlie Norwood's (R)position in the 10th district and create an Augusta-based seat that Walker could, well, walk into next year.

The newsletter also floated the idea that state House Majority Leader Larry Walker (D)could see a central Georgia district designed with his political future in mind. It also reports that party-switching Rep. Nathan Deal (R) and prominent impeachment player Rep. Bob Barr (R) could find themselves facing off in a 2002 primary when all is said and done.

Democrats are eager to change the current balance of eight Republicans and three Democrats in the state delegation (Georgia will also gain two seats), but they should keep an eye on history. They also controlled the last round of redistricting, and an aggressive attempt to hurt then Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) ended up backfiring. Before redistricting Democrats had controlled nine of the state's 10 House seats.

Judge: No Sampling.

A U.S. District Court judge last week dismissed a Democratic-backed lawsuit that sought to force Commerce Secretary Donald Evans to release census numbers adjusted with statistical sampling.

Backing a recommendation from the Census Bureau, Evans ruled that the bureau could not release census estimates based on sampling. Judge Gary Fees said he found the underlying federal law "unclear."

The suit was filed in March on behalf of more than a dozen cities, including Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, as well as several L.A.-area House Members. The plaintiffs may appeal.

Roll Call
Between the Lines
By John Mercurio
April 30, 2001

Johnson vs. Maloney?

Remapping in Connecticut hasn't gone very far yet, but that hasn't stopped Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) from preparing for a race against Rep. James Maloney (D) - and using that potential showdown to help her raise money.

Just one of dozens of House Members who could face a battle with a fellow incumbent in newly drawn districts, Johnson held a PAC fundraiser March 20 at the Capitol Hill Club during which she highlighted speculation that she could be forced to run against Maloney. Connecticut lost one of its six House seats in reapportionment.

"Fact: Maloney is gearing up to relocate and run against Nancy Johnson in HER district," read an invitation to Johnson's PAC supporters. "Fact: A campaign contribution for Jim Maloney is a contribution AGAINST Nancy Johnson."

Likewise, a March campaign newsletter for Johnson noted that "Pundits in Connecticut predict that Maloney will relocate and run against Johnson in her district once his is abolished."

"A lot of our supporters, especially in Washington, don't know this is taking place," Dave Karvelas, Johnson's chief of staff, said last week. "You have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and certainly running against another incumbent is the toughest kind of race you could have."

Maloney said Johnson's "strong-arm tactics" suggest that she is "unduly alarmed, unduly early."

"I'm disappointed in Nancy. There's sort of a whiff of panic there," he said. "Nancy talks about bipartisanship in Connecticut, and yet she is engaging in bullying tactics with the PAC community in Washington."

Unlike Johnson, Maloney has faced strong opposition in both of his re-election contests, forcing him to raise and spend large sums of money and assemble serious campaign organizations. Maloney raised $2 million for his 2000 bid, but he had just $8,000 on hand as of Dec. 31. Johnson raised $1.6 million, but she had $452,000 in the bank at the end of 2000.

Johnson campaign aides have also sought to stir speculation that Maloney is casting about for an entirely new job. Aides last week faxed out newspaper reports that Maloney would eye a gubernatorial bid if he loses his House seat. But Maloney said Friday that he's leaning strongly against a run for governor.

An eight-member panel composed of two members of each party from the state House and Senate will draw the maps. State law sets a Sept. 15 deadline for the General Assembly to approve the redistricting plans. Gov. John Rowland's (R) approval is not required, but the plan must be approved by a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the Legislature.

Speculation about a Johnson-Maloney contest stems from the possibility that redistricting officials will eliminate his Danbury-based seat, forcing him to run against one of his colleagues.

A Johnson-Maloney matchup is not a sure thing, though. Some redistricting insiders said Maloney could easily end up running to challenge Rep. Christopher Shays (R), whose Stamford-based district lies southwest of Maloney's territory.

Shays has said he does not relish a race against his colleague. "I don't like to think about having to run against him. He's a competent and capable Member," Shays told the New Haven Register.

Back to the Drawing Board?

An Iowa redistricting plan that throws two House Republicans into the same district and favors Democrats elsewhere has drawn opposition from a key citizens group.

The state's Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission, a five-member panel of citizens that held public hearings this month, voted 3-2 along party lines to reject the map, which was proposed earlier this month by the state Bureau of Legislative Services. The bureau is a non-partisan arm of the Legislature that is responsible for designing new House maps every 10 years.

The bureau's map would throw GOP Reps. Jim Leach, the dean of the Iowa House delegation, and Jim Nussle, the new Budget chairman, into the same eastern Iowa district, while making retiring Rep. Greg Ganske's (R) district into a Democratic-leaning seat. The plan also solidifies the Democratic strength of the district of Rep. Leonard Boswell, the House delegation's lone Democrat.

Republicans, who control the state Legislature, plan to use the group's vote to help bolster their case for derailing the bureau's map.

The Legislature can vote on the new maps as early as Wednesday. If they reject them, lawmakers will return in special session and consider a second proposal. If the second proposal fails, the Legislature will create a third plan.

Luther vs. McCollum?

Kicking off action in what could be one of the most unpredictable states facing redistricting, Minnesota Republicans have drawn a House map that pits Democratic Reps. Bill Luther and Betty McCollum against each other in the same district. The GOP plan would create a new district in the Twin Cities where black voters would represent a plurality.

The Minnesota remap promises to be a unwieldy process, if only because it will feature three opposing players instead of the traditional two. Republicans control the state Senate, Democrats run the state House and Gov. Jesse Ventura is an Independent.

Under the plan Republicans released last week, Minneapolis and St. Paul would share one district for the first time in more than 100 years, the suburbs would be represented by three Members instead of two and northern Minnesota, now served by two Representatives, would have just one.

The Republican plan creates a new suburban 6th district with no incumbent. If the proposal is enacted, Luther presumably will move there to represent the suburban voters north of the Twin Cities he has served since 1995.

The measure has already drawn criticism from Democrats and the Ventura administration, which said it is contrary to the governor's priority of drawing a map that fosters strong competition among both major- and minor-party candidates. Ventura aides said the GOP map seeks a clear advantage for Republicans.

Utah Census Case, Take II.

One week after a federal three-judge panel rejected its original bid to win an additional House seat, Utah filed a second challenge to the Census Bureau's decision to deny the state an extra seat in reapportionment and give it to North Carolina instead.

Utah's lawyers still plan to appeal to the Supreme Court the panel's recent rejection of the state's lawsuit, which sought to have overseas missionaries added to the 2000 Census numbers or have overseas federal employees excluded from the count. Either option would give Utah an additional House seat.

Utah lost the seat to North Carolina by 857 residents. Utah had about 11,000 Mormon missionaries serving overseas.

The second lawsuit, which also asks for a three-judge panel to hear the case, challenges the Census Bureau's use of a statistical technique known as "imputation," which Utah attorneys claim is a form of statistical sampling. The Supreme Court ruled against the use of sampling for reapportionment.

Tampa Tribune
The Future of Race in Redistricting
April 25, 2001

The other day the Supreme Court approved a meandering, predominantly black North Carolina congressional district configured in a way that some white voters claimed was unconstitutional. The 5-4 decision, which turned on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's swing vote, was the fifth time since 1993 that the court had to rule on the district currently held by Rep. Mel Watt. After all of those rulings, however, the court still hasn't answered the most important question: Is it constitutionally permissible to create congressional districts to guarantee minority representation?

As with previous cases, the justices have not given the country clear guidance, something it will need as states go through the arduous task of redistricting following the 2000 census. The high court first struck down Watt's district in 1993, with Justice O'Connor referring to it as ``political apartheid.'' In 1996 the black-majority district was again declared unlawfully created. In 1997 the justices ruled that North Carolina had to redraw the district because too much emphasis was placed on race when it was designed. In 1999 the justices reversed a lower court panel's decision invalidating the redrawn district because the panel had not held a hearing on the evidence.

The court has said that race can still be a factor in redistricting plans; it simply cannot be the predominant factor. But how much of a factor? And when should it be used? Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: ``The evidence taken together ... does not show that racial considerations predominated. ... That is because race in this case correlates closely with political behavior.'' So is it OK for party registration to be a factor when drawing a congressional district? Some background: In 1982 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was amended so that nonwhites could claim they were denied the right ``to elect representatives of their choice'' if nonwhites were not voted into office in proportion to their numbers. This has been interpreted to mean the creation of mostly black voting areas to virtually guarantee the election of black representatives.

The boundaries of these districts tend to follow residential patterns rather than natural town boundaries. As a result, many are exotically shaped, defying traditional principles such as compactness, contiguousness and respect for communities of interest. But supporters of creating ``majority-minority'' districts point out, correctly, that it has been the means for blacks and Hispanics to increase their representation in federal and state legislative bodies. Before it was done in Florida in 1992, there had been no black congressional members from the state since Reconstruction.

Throughout this nation's history, redistricting has often been synonymous with gerrymandering. So illogically shaped voting districts are nothing new. But while there is no general guide for forming legislative districts, again, compactness and geographical contiguousness are a good starting point. It is the ``communities of interest'' component that tends to come first when drawing majority-minority districts. And until the court gives a strong ruling on how much of a factor race can be or gives specific instructions on how redistricting should be done, it is safe to say the justices will be dealing with the issue again in the near future.

The Washington Post
Slapstick With Maps
By David S. Broder
April 25, 2001

The redistricting season got off to a splendid start last week and promises to bring as much amusement to Washington as the new Mel Brooks musical, "The Producers," apparently will deliver on Broadway. Our political slapstick promises mind-reading, side-switching Supreme Court justices, feuding politicians and enough hypocrisy to choke a rhinoceros. Every 10 years, when the results of the latest census are reported, seats in city councils, state legislative chambers and the House of Representatives have to be redistributed to keep the districts as equal in population as possible. Theoretically, that mandate could be accomplished by taking a cookie-cutter to the map and blocking out squares of varying size, each with the same number of citizens.

That ain't the way it happens. Instead, the legislatures (which perform this artistry except in a few fun-killing states where the work is assigned to nonpartisan commissions) take cognizance of such above-board considerations as traditional political and geographic boundaries. But they give even greater weight to such urgent if unmentionable goals as protecting their friends, discomfiting their opponents and drawing favorable districts for themselves. After the legislatures do their worst, someone is sure to challenge the resulting map in court -- and then the fun begins. Judges, it seems, are frustrated cartographers, and their inclination to seize the pencil and eraser is almost literally irresistible.

A real cartographer, Syracuse University geography professor Mark Monmonier, explains what happens, in a delightful new book titled "Bushmanders and Bullwinkles," which he describes as "an examination of how legislators, redistricting officials and constitutional lawyers use maps as both tools and weapons." Along the way, he touches several times on the relatively new role of judges as map-makers. Too late for Monmonier's book, but just in time to mark the start of another banner season of judicially supervised redistricting, the Supreme Court last week delivered a decision upholding the constitutionality of North Carolina's 12th Congressional District. Created 10 years ago by the North Carolina legislature with the clear goal of ending the all-white history of the 12-member congressional delegation from a state that is 22 percent black, it has been held since 1992 by African American Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt. But it has rarely had the same boundaries two elections in a row. A series of court cases and legislative responses has transformed it from a long and skinny district picking up black enclaves from Durham to Charlotte into a shorter, fatter (and less African American) district running from Charlotte to Winston-Salem. White plaintiffs have taken the case to the Supreme Court four separate times, with a record of one win, one loss and two ties (remands to lower courts requesting further clarification).

The issue each time has been whether the legislators who drew the 12th District had made its racial composition the "predominant factor" in their craftsmanship, thereby violating a constitutional prohibition against segregating people on the basis of race. Determining the answer involved a painstaking review of the arguments -- explicit and implicit -- that went into its formation and the raw materials that the legislators in Raleigh used in constructing it. At times, it came awfully close to judicial mind-reading. What made the case so vexing was the simple fact that most African American voters mark their ballots for Democrats.

If the legislators were trying to draw a safely Democratic district, it would be okay -- assuming it met the other tests the courts usually apply. But if their goal was mainly to draw a safely black district, that would be a no-no. When the Supreme Court looked at the first version of District 12, the justices concluded it was racial gerrymandering, and threw it out. By a 5 to 4 decision. When they looked at the latest version, just last week, it looked like good old-fashioned political gerrymandering and they said it could stand. Again, by a 5 to 4 decision. The swing vote was that of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has occupied that role so often on closely contested redistricting cases that she has become the virtual Czarina of Remaps, a k a She Who Must Be Satisfied. Politicians and their consultants pore over every word O'Connor has uttered on this subject, trying to assure themselves that they have plausible arguments to offer her when the inevitable moment arrives and they are trying to defend their maps in the Supreme Court. O'Connor reigns supreme. And when she retires, Mel Brooks would be the logical successor.

Roll Call
Caucus' Move Could Limit Hispanic Gains Challengers Unhappy With Decision
By Ethan Wallison and John Mercurio 
April 23, 2001

In a decision that could undercut efforts to boost their numbers on Capitol Hill, Congressional Hispanics have privately agreed to back incumbent Democrats in primary contests with Hispanic challengers, despite major population gains that portend new electoral clout for Latinos. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus made the decision as its members were finalizing details for a PAC that will be used to recruit and finance Latino candidates in the 2002 elections and beyond. "We've made our position very clear," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the CHC. "We are identifying seats where there is not that potential" for Hispanics to challenge incumbent Democrats, and they are recruiting candidates in those districts.

The decision sets the Hispanic Caucus at odds with its own goal of boosting Latino representation on Capitol Hill - an objective that seemed achievable with the release of new census figures showing that Hispanics have reached parity with African-Americans in terms of national population. However, Latino leaders on Capitol Hill said they calculated that the cost of backing Hispanic candidates over their own colleagues would outweigh any benefits they might receive from greater representation in Congress. "Clearly, if we want Members to vote with us on the issues of importance to our community, we need to support them," Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said. It is not likely that the CHC's support would provide a margin of advantage for Latino challengers. But without it, such candidates would lose a powerful argument for voters to change their representatives in Congress.

Already, Democratic strategists and Congressional Hispanics have scaled back earlier projections of as many as 12 Latino pickups in the next elections. Many now say the high-end figure is probably more like six, but some strategists suggest even that number could be overly optimistic. The surge in Latino numbers is the barely concealed subtext of a number of redistricting battles across the country and is already animating contests in cities such as Los Angeles, where Hispanics have emerged as a strong plurality in three districts currently represented by African-American lawmakers. These Members - Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters, Juanita Millender-McDonald and, assuming she wins a June 5 runoff, Diane Watson - are likely to benefit most from the CHC's decision. Mark Gersh, a top Democratic strategist and adviser to Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.), noted that as many as 15 districts have shifted from black to Hispanic pluralities in the past decade. "That's where you get into black-brown primaries, potentially," Gersh said, while stressing that much still needs to be determined in the redistricting process.

Potential Hispanic primary challengers have also begun to emerge in districts with white incumbents. In Colorado's 1st district, where roughly a third of the constituency is now of Hispanic origin, three-term Rep. Diana DeGette (D) already faces a challenge from Denver City Council President Ramona Martinez (D). While Martinez acknowledged "the [unwritten] rule" that says Members don't support challenges to their party colleagues, she indicated that she considers the CHC's position misguided. "I guess Idon't quite understand [the CHC position], because if our goal is to increase our representation in Congress, there are going to have to be changes" in a number of districts, Martinez said in an interview. The councilwoman cited census figures that showed DeGette's district, which is expected to remain intact through redistricting, is now 54 percent black or Hispanic. "Where are minority communities supposed to get minority representation?" Martinez asked rhetorically. "I plan on giving every one of [the members of the CHC] a courtesy call to let them know that I'm running."

Larry Gonzalez, the Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, a non-partisan group that has been helping the Hispanic Caucus identify potential candidates, indicated he was also disappointed in the CHC's decision. He suggested the group's position undermines their supposedly shared interest in increasing the number of Hispanics in Congress. "We would feel differently. We obviously would like to see Latino Members support other Latino candidates," Gonzalez said. Few House Democrats are more concerned about a possible primary challenge from a Hispanic than Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Texas), whose Fort Worth-area district is now roughly 30 percent Latino. Texas Republicans, who control the state Senate and governor's office and expect to have the upper hand in redistricting, have talked up a plan to redraw Frost into a seat with a strong Hispanic tilt. His current district, which stretches southeast of Fort Worth, also has a substantial African-American population.

Frost dismissed concerns that any such change could hinder his re-election bid. "I've had a significant Hispanic population in my district in the past, and I've always had very significant support," he said. "Whatever district is drawn for me, I'll campaign hard, and I expect to do well. Other Anglo incumbents who have previously represented the Hispanic community will continue to do well among Hispanic voters." Nonetheless, Frost, who also heads up the redistricting effort for House Democrats, applauded the CHC's decision. He said it will work to the benefit of Hispanic interests in the long run by ensuring that Latinos "will be a powerful voice in [the] districts" where they have a strong presence. "Whoever is elected will owe a good bit of his electoral victory to the Hispanic community," Frost said. "They will have a greater influence with incumbents all over the country and they can go to those incumbents and say, We provided the difference in getting you re-elected.' That will be helpful in getting their legislation passed. It's a very important thing for them to do." Reyes, who said Hispanics have a "strong shot" at winning six new seats, refused to give any details about candidates the group is considering giving support to except to disclose that the CHC has compiled a preliminary list of "about six to 10" possibilities and that Dario Herrera, chairman of the Clark County Commission in Nevada, is one of them.

Armed with support from top Nevada Democrats, Herrera has said he plans to run in the new House seat Nevada received in reapportionment. But he could face a primary fight against fellow Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, who is black. An evaluation committee headed by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) will be vetting candidates for the CHC. Reyes said California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and "the Northwest" offer the best Hispanic pickup opportunities. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), who is heading up the group's fundraising committee, CHC BOLDPAC, filled in a few of the holes. Among other things, he said, the CHC is working on a roster of potential candidates who have not "been through the Congressional mill" before, rather than recycling previous Hispanic challengers.

One possible exception Baca cited, however, was Regina Montoya Coggins, a Texas Democrat who challenged Rep. Pete Sessions (R) in 2000. He also indicated that Hispanics were particularly excited about a challenger (whom he wouldn't name) to Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), whose district is now one-quarter Hispanic. Sally Havice (D), a Latina state Assemblywoman from Long Beach, announced her candidacy for the seat last Wednesday. Havice may face a primary challenge. "We don't want to throw our money away," Baca said, suggesting that a number of Hispanic candidates recruited in recent election cycles had been non-starters. "Viability is the key" to winning the CHC's support. Baca said the PAC, which will have its first fundraiser May 2, is trying to collect enough money so that the committee will be able to spend as much as $1 million on each of its targeted races. Gersh agreed that California and Texas will likely produce opportunities for Hispanic Democrats and also noted that Florida and Nevada are fertile territories for the GOP. "I've got no doubt that there will be more Hispanics running and, hopefully, winning," Gersh said.

However, Gersh also cited a series of factors that augur against strong Hispanic gains in the next elections. For one thing, roughly a third of Hispanics are Republican, making the community less capable of coalescing around one candidate, as African-Americans have done with striking results. There are now 38 members in the Congressional Black Caucus. The CHC has only 18, even though the Hispanic population has burgeoned over the past decade. Then there are the numbers themselves. Gersh suggested they could be misleading because a significant segment of the Hispanic population is either in this country illegally, is too young to vote or has not yet been awarded citizenship.

Gersh also said that Hispanic incumbents could very well be another obstacle. Many of their districts, he noted, are predominantly Latino because they were designed to produce Hispanic lawmakers; portions of those districts may have to be siphoned off to create new Hispanic ones. "The question is whether some lawmakers who are currently in office are willing to [accept] that," said Gersh, who believes that Hispanic gains will most likely come in newly created seats rather than in challenges to incumbents. He predicted "maybe three to five" such seats after redistricting. Gonzalez, meanwhile, mentioned a practical obstacle to increasing the number of Hispanics on Capitol Hill: a paucity of top-tier candidates. According to Gonzalez, there are 5,138 Latinos holding elected posts or appointed statewide offices. But only 200 Latinos currently serve in state legislatures across the country, and a majority of them started serving in the 1990s. "In terms of a pool of people who are looking to move to that next level, it's very small."

Associated Press
Minorities Seek Greater Political Power Following Census
By Robert Tanner
April 9, 2001

When Pepe Mercado's father opened a luncheonette 31 years ago, he offered a taste of home for fellow Puerto Ricans who were streaming into a city of Italian, Irish and blacks. Now, for the first time, Hispanics from many countries outnumber all other groups in this one-time industrial center: new Census numbers show Hispanics make up 50.1 percent of the city's 149,922 residents. Mercado's son, looking past plates of spicy chopped liver and stewed pig ears, thinks government ought to catch up and reflect the faces at the diner's counter. "It's our time," he says.

The same cry is being heard throughout the nation as political maps everywhere must be redrawn in the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting. Explosive population growth has given Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups a shot at a political voice - a new Asian congressman for California, perhaps, or the first Hispanic state senator in New Jersey. At the local government level, there's a chance for Indians, Palestinians, Vietnamese and other groups to elect representatives. But for several reasons - party politics, court decisions and conflicts between minorities among them - it won't be easy. Redistricting follows the release of Census numbers. Maps must be redrawn so political districts are equal in size at each level of government. New Jersey and Virginia, which have state legislative elections this autumn, are redistricting first.

The other states, with elections in 2002, won't need to finish redistricting for months. Party politics always plays a major role in redistricting, and in Virginia the Republicans are in control. The GOP-controlled legislature decides on the maps and the governor, Republican Jim Gilmore, must agree. Hispanics do not figure to gain much, if anything, there. Gilmore has reached out to Hispanics in northern Virginia, though their numbers are still too small to ensure a Hispanic representative. Blacks are struggling to maintain the gains they've achieved in the past. New Jersey, like a handful of other states, has tried to reduce political infighting by putting redistricting in the hands of a 10-member commission - half appointed by Democrats, half by Republicans. It hasn't helped. The commission deadlocked, and with a decision due Monday, a judge has appointed a political science professor as a tiebreaker. Hispanics in New Jersey want representation equal their 13 percent statewide population. That would mean 10 Hispanics in the state Assembly (there are now five), and five senators (none currently). With the commission working behind closed doors, it's hard to say whether their goal will be achieved.

But it won't be for lack of trying. Late last month, Hispanic lawmakers presented a proposed map of their own for commissioners to consider. "Power is never voluntarily given up, you're never invited to get a seat at the table," said New Jersey Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat. "You have to almost take the seat yourself." Minorities arguments can be lost in the bigger battle that shadows all redistricting efforts: Politics. Each party hopes to gain the advantage for the coming decade. Democrats have promised to spend $13 million on redistricting this time around; Republicans are more circumspect. Analysts say the stakes could be a 10-seat swing in the U.S. House. "This is up close and personal," said Tom Hofeller, a redistricting expert for the Republican National Committee. "It's a very, very political activity." And the rules for redistricting are changing along with the nation's cultural mix.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent court decisions gave tools to minority groups seeking equal representation, bringing sweeping changes, particularly for blacks in the South. But recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court seem to have diminished the importance of race in redistricting. Now, race and ethnicity are considered as just one factor. The geography of a community, its interests, its history all must be weighed, redistricting experts say. The new approach, however, has yet to be tested, says Laughlin McDonald, a voting rights expert with the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta. "Nobody knows what the rules are, they're very conflicting." Those conflicts may well end up in court, McDonald and others said.

And there are more potential conflicts on the ground, as minority groups wind up elbow-to-elbow. Many predict battles, especially in urban areas where, in the past few decades, blacks have struggled for representation. "You're going to see Hispanic politicians make the same demands of black politicians as blacks made of whites," said Paula McClain, a Duke University political science professor. '"We want city council seats, police officers, school boards."' In places like Virginia, where Asians and Hispanics are concentrated in the suburbs of Washington, the communities are still too new to become politically involved. "You're trying to survive," said Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington. "It takes a while to establish yourself and get fully involved." Asian advocates, for now, are focused on New York and California. Hispanics are pursuing a broader approach, paralleling their larger numbers nationwide. For all the potential conflicts, Lizabeth Vasquez, helping her dad at the Paterson diner, is hoping the final outcome is that more of her people end up in office. "They grew up in your community," she said as her 3-year-old daughter clung to her hip. "They have more of an understanding."

The Washington Post
Democracy In a Noose
By David Lebedoff
April 7, 2001

In almost every congressional district in America, it was impossible for the incumbent to lose last November. Only two members of the House of Representatives were defeated at the polls -- out of 435! In fact, the House has been largely removed from the electoral process. Practically every seat has been deliberately made safe for one party or the other. The voters are essentially irrelevant. The incumbent can serve as long as he or she remains alive or free from truly epochal scandal. The culprit in this state of affairs is the census, or rather what we do with the census figures collected every 10 years.

We redistrict. We draw new lines deliberately designed to keep the incumbents from losing. Those lines are a noose around democracy. Who draws them? It's supposed to be the state legislatures, but often they can't do the job. Why? For the same reason that kids can't grade their own exams: conflict of interest. State legislators want to help their own parties at the congressional level. Very frequently, what they come up with is unconstitutional. Then the job has to be passed on to someone else. In the past, this has often been a panel of federal judges. Now, the quality of our federal judiciary is very high, and life tenure goes a long way toward dissolving the bonds of party fealty.

So you might think that the federal panels would have done a good job of redistricting. You would be wrong. In almost every district, their handiwork shows signs of partisan gerrymandering. It's not gerrymandering in favor of Republicans or Democrats; the mischief is bipartisan. It makes one district safe for one party and the adjoining district safe for the other. The truth is that both parties want it that way. Incumbents desire safer districts. Democratic members of Congress want more Democratic voters in their districts; Republican members want more Republicans. So when it's time to redistrict, the people doing it simply draw a line like a lasso and rope the Democrats out of the Republican district next door, which of course makes that district even more Republican, and vice versa. The traffic is two-way. (It rather resembles the Muslim-Hindu cross-migrations just after the partition of India.)

The judges go along with this because both parties do. The parties drafted the plans that the judges often only tinker with. The result is that the incumbent cannot be defeated, and the voters in effect are disenfranchised. Members of Congress fear only their own party, not the voice of the people. In a district where a party can't lose, the party faithful can afford the sick luxury of being inflexible. If an incumbent doesn't toe a very narrow line, there goes funding and endorsement. Since the last census, a U.S. Supreme Court decision has made it likelier that redistricting litigation will at least begin in state, rather than federal courts. But the change of forum matters less than the political dynamic, which remains the same: Make each district unlosable.

All the talk about term limits has been misdirected; it's aimed at the symptom, not the cause. The symptom is the embarrassing fact that incumbent congressmen almost never lose. The cause is not unlimited terms; it's the gerrymandering of each district in the first place. Since the recent evisceration of the British House of Lords, the American House of Representatives remains perhaps the closest thing to a legislative body whose members serve for life. It's this invulnerability that has depopulated our parties. Congressional voters in the electoral minority think their votes don't count, so they stay home. If they're in the majority party, they think their votes aren't needed, and so they stay home. The broad tents of politics past have been reduced to foxholes, defended angrily by fanatics. The public senses this; that's why Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. And Ventura knows this. That's why he shocked both parties in his home state by announcing plans for a citizen redistricting commission to eliminate safe districts and to make each contest competitive among Republicans and Democrats and independents.

He's got the right idea. The Framers intended the census as a tool to help make congressional districts more representative, not less. The redistricting mechanisms that are now used to erase our votes are probably unconstitutional. They certainly don't sound like due process. But we're running out of time for lawsuits. Soon lines will be drawn to ensure another undemocratic decade. Perhaps public outrage will do the trick. Perhaps the wise jurists who soon will be asked to draw new lines will place a higher priority on giving each party a fighting chance in as many districts as possible. Right now everyone is saying that we need to find a clearer way to cast and count votes before the next election. But that's not nearly as urgent a need as changing the way we draw congressional district lines. Unlosable districts are a far greater threat to the voter than butterfly ballots. Our voting machines may disenfranchise thousands of voters. Our political machines are disenfranchising almost everyone in the land.

David Lebedoff is a writer and lawyer in Minneapolis.



top of page

Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 901    Takoma Park, MD  20912
(301) 270-4616 ____  [email protected]