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Houston Chronicle

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 elsewhere.

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.

Just 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 grab."

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 election.

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.

However 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 system.

Rob Richie is the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy ( Steven Hill is the Center's senior analyst, and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press,

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