Think Twice Before Seeking Gains With Off-Season Remaps

Posted January 29, 2003 at 3:26pm

To the victors go the spoils. But which spoils?

Political junkies are abuzz at the possibility that a few state legislatures could redraw their Congressional lines this year, shifting a series of political balances and potentially giving Republicans a handful more hospitable districts going into the 2004 elections. [IMGCAP(1)]

With Democrats at 206 seats in the House (counting Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont), the party needs to gain 12 seats to win a House majority. That’s already an unenviable task. Any additional GOP gains set up through a second round of redistricting would make the Democrats’ job that much more difficult, as they are already operating on a playing field where few districts provide them obvious opportunities.

Legislatures must redraw their lines every 10 years (after the census), but most can redistrict any time they like, as long as the state legislature and the governor agree to make changes.

With Republicans now controlling both houses of the Texas Legislature and the governorship, many Lone Star State GOPers are eager to redraw the state’s Congressional districts, which they believe unfairly benefit Democrats. These Republicans note that a state judge initially drew a map that would have elected as many as 20 Republicans, rather than the 15 currently in the House delegation.

Colorado Republicans are also considering redrawing the state’s lines to strengthen freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez’s 7th district. Beauprez won by just 177 votes, and a more reliably Republican district could make his re-election bid much easier. But the party’s one-seat majority in the state Senate means Republicans have no margin for error. [IMGCAP(2)]

In Georgia, where Republicans now control the state Senate and the governor’s mansion, some Republicans had hoped to redraw the state’s legislative boundaries and Congressional lines, which are bizarre by any standard. But GOP efforts to form a coalition with moderate Democrats to elect state Rep. Larry Walker (D) as speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives failed. The new House Speaker, Terry Coleman (D), appointed Democrats to chair all of the chamber’s committees — a sign that it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to pass a Congressional redistricting bill through both houses of the Legislature.

Three other states went from divided government before November to complete Republican control now, but that fact has little or no implications for Congressional redistricting: Alaska (which has only one district), New Hampshire (which has Republicans representing both House seats) and South Carolina.

But if Republicans move to redistrict in Texas and Colorado, they ought to remember that the shoe is on the other foot in some states.

Divided partisan control before November in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Illinois has given way to Democratic control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship in those states. Democrats also won complete control of the levers of power in Maine, which didn’t redistrict before the 2002 elections and where both House seats are held by Democrats.

Democratic legislators are in a position to redraw Congressional boundaries in those states, and they would have a reasonable chance of picking up a district in Oklahoma and another in New Mexico.

In Illinois, where legislators have not seriously talked about redrawing the state’s Congressional boundaries, Republicans now represent 10 of the state’s 19 districts even though Democrats control most of the statewide offices and 54 percent of the seats in the state Senate and 56 percent of seats in the state House. Democratic strategists surely could re-draw the state in such a way as to pick up a seat or two.

But Illinois legislators are wrestling with a big budget deficit and don’t want to be drawn into a partisan redistricting fight. Nor would newly elected Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) want to pick a fight with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) by threatening GOP House Members from the state.

While a change in partisan political control gives legislatures in a handful of states the opportunity to revisit redistricting this year, any state considering redistricting should think long and hard before doing so. This goes for a state like Georgia, where Democrats enacted an obscene plan, and New Mexico.

The thought of states redrawing their Congressional district lines two or three times a decade is enough to give anyone indigestion. There is something unseemly about legislators faced with major budget issues spending time manipulating state lines to benefit their parties. Of course, officeholders who want to redraw weirdly shaped districts that look like snakes, alligators or other reptiles obviously have a better case than those who want to tinker with districts that appear compact and contiguous.

Multiple redistrictings in a state would likely produce considerable bitterness among legislators, increasing partisanship and politicizing everything else the legislature would do – leading to an endless cycle of re-drawings in state after state. For my money, that’s enough reason to avoid them, except in the rarest of cases.