Several states may change redistricting process
Backers seek a less political method, more competitive races

By Nancy Vogel
Published October 2nd 2005 in L.A. Times
When California voters go to the polls Nov. 8 to decide whether to strip lawmakers of the authority to draw their own districts, so will voters in Ohio. Millions more are likely to follow in Massachusetts and Florida.

In these and more than a dozen other states, activists are busy concocting different solutions to the same problem. They are trying to find a less political way to draw districts for Congress and legislatures so voters have a better crack at actually deciding elections.

What's at stake, some say, is democracy's cornerstone.

"To some extent, the power to draw lines is more important than the power of voting," said Nathaniel Persily, a redistricting expert who is a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania. "The redistricting process is often more determinative of who wins elections than the voting in elections itself."

From California, where Proposition 77 would put redistricting in the hands of three retired judges, to Florida, where a circulating initiative would create a 15-member bipartisan redistricting commission, the usually arcane, once-a-decade process of redrawing districts to even out shifts in population is a hot political topic.

Besides ballot measures pending in California, Ohio, Florida and Massachusetts, bills to create independent or bipartisan redistricting commissions have been introduced in at least 12 state legislatures this year. In Congress, a Tennessee Republican introduced a bill to require independent commissions nationwide.

Familiar criticisms
The solutions that government watchdogs propose vary, but their lamentations sound alike across the country. They complain of government increasingly beyond the influence of voters, of a shortage of people willing to run for office and of ideological polarization among those who are elected.

"It's frustration with a lack of competition, a lack of accountability," said Mary Boyle, press secretary for Common Cause, the nonpartisan, nonprofit group leading the charge in several states.

In all the states considering ballot measures, legislators now draw at least congressional boundaries. And they naturally skew the lines to favor the party in power. Weird-shaped districts dip, twist and jab to capture enough Democratic or Republican voters to ensure the re-election of the incumbent politicians.

In Florida, the 27th State Senate District stretches nearly from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast and takes three hours to cross by car. It was created from the scraps of other nearby districts, said Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Democrat who holds the seat.

Contorted political lines such as these are a tradition almost as old as the U.S. itself and called "gerrymandering," after the salamander-shaped county that Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry drew in 1812 to favor his political party. But lately, toleration of the practice has been fading.

Redistricting reform proponents, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, say the facts speak for themselves: In November 2004, not one of the 153 congressional and legislative races in California changed parties. None of Ohio's congressional seats changed hands. Either a Democrat or a Republican didn't bother to run in 72 percent of the races for the Florida Legislature and almost half the races for the Massachusetts Legislature.

Pamela H. Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said some lawmakers there haven't faced an opponent in more than a decade. "You can imagine that that has some pretty dire consequences to political accountability," she said.

Holding the center Among the civic "pathologies" created by gerrymandering is a dearth of moderate, centrist politicians more open to compromise, said Ohio State University political professor Herb Asher.

When districts are drawn to favor one party, competitors from other parties are discouraged from running. So the real fight for the seat unfolds in the primary election. To win the primary, candidates appeal to the true believers of their party. The most liberal Democrats and most conservative Republicans tend to get elected.

Calls for taking redistricting from the self-interested hands of lawmakers are nothing new. They often arise from the out-of-power party, whose enthusiasm for "reform" wanes once it has gained control. And groups such as Common Cause have been pursuing reform since the 1970s, with occasional success.

A dozen states don't allow lawmakers to draw legislative districts, and six don't allow them to draw congressional boundaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

 Some political scientists say the wave of new redistricting proposals is in part a reaction to recent events in Texas and Georgia. There, legislatures upended a century-old tradition of redrawing political boundaries once every 10 years, upon the arrival of fresh data from the national census.

Republicans in Texas gained control of the Legislature in 2002, and redrew congressional lines the next year. Under the new districts, Republicans gained five seats and helped the national party retain control of the U.S. House.

Similarly, in Georgia, after Republicans gained control of both houses of the Legislature in 2004, they redrew congressional districts that government watchdogs said had been gerrymandered by Democrats.