Mid-Decade Redistricting: What’s Appropriate?

Posted January 21, 2005 at 1:11pm

The calendar says it is 2005, but Congressional redistricting is or again could be on the table in Georgia, Illinois and California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is pushing to change the way redistricting is done. He wants to take it out of the hands of the Legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges. [IMGCAP(1)]

The first substantial development may well come in Georgia, where GOP legislative leaders continue to talk about redrawing the state’s Congressional districts next year now that the party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governorship.

Party leaders acknowledge that they would face roadblocks — and criticism — if they were to redraw the districts mid-decade. But they insist the current lines, drawn by the Democrats, are so bizarre that a new map could both improve Republican prospects in two districts and be defended as a “good government” plan that creates compact districts and respects local governmental units.

Since Georgia is a Voting Rights Act state, any new plan must pass muster with the Justice Department. Voting rights issues automatically make redistricting more complicated and politically sensitive, but state Republican insiders argue they can draw fairer lines without damaging the interests of black voters.

GOP strategists would likely focus their attention on two districts: the 11th district, held by Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, and the 12th district, held by freshman Democratic Rep. John Barrow.

Gingrey’s district includes seven full counties and parts of 10 others, and it stretches from northwest Georgia down along the western side of the state until it curls around and picks up parts of Columbus.

Initially drawn to elect a Democrat, it went for Gingrey narrowly in 2002 and more comfortably last year. But the Congressman’s recent 57 percent victory over underfunded challenger Rick Crawford (D) has only reinforced GOP concerns.

A new map also would perform surgery on Barrow’s district, which meanders from southeast Georgia to the edge of metropolitan Atlanta, and includes three major population centers: Augusta, Athens and Savannah. Some Republicans already are talking about putting Barrow’s Athens home into a district represented by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R).

So should Republicans take a shot at enacting new lines? Or should they bide their time until 2011, when another round of redistricting will be held after the 2010 Census?

While I have always believed that mid-decade redistricting is legal (unless specifically prohibited by state law or a state’s constitution), I continue to believe that it is unwise. Not everything that is legal is a good idea.

Mid-decade redistricting is likely to lead to increased bitterness and partisanship, making it more difficult for Republican and Democratic legislators to work together on important matters of public policy. And there is something almost undemocratic about changing districts, except at regular intervals, to help one party and hurt another.

But while mid-decade redistricting is normally inadvisable, the Georgia case isn’t normal. Or, rather, the map passed in Georgia more than three years ago isn’t normal.

As I wrote in October 2001, that map is one of the most gerrymandered in recent memory, with at least five of the state’s 13 Congressional districts bizarrely shaped and drawn solely to create a certain partisan number.

Georgia isn’t the only state that has oddly shaped districts or a record of partisanship overcoming good sense. (A GOP-drawn map in Pennsylvania also raised eyebrows, for instance.) But nothing comes close to what Georgia’s legislators did in 2001.

So we have a conundrum. Would redistricting in Georgia be justified to correct the previous abuse? Or, would mid-decade redistricting be a cure worse than the disease?

While Republicans in Georgia have talked quite openly about drawing new Congressional lines, Democrats nationally and in Illinois have been whispering since Nov. 2 about the possibility of redrawing their lines in the Land of Lincoln.

The state now has a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature, and the party could make trouble for a number of senior House Republicans, including Speaker Dennis Hastert and International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde.

But unlike the map in Georgia, Illinois’ current lines resulted from a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the state. When the lines were drawn, the Democrats held the state House and the Republicans held the governorship and the state Senate. Redrawing lines would eviscerate that compromise.

After thinking about redistricting cases for a while, I don’t have too much trouble arriving at an answer for myself about when mid-decade redistricting is appropriate.

Texas’ redistricting last year was, I continue to believe, ill-advised. A judge had drawn the state’s Congressional lines, and the districts weren’t so bizarrely shaped as to require a new set of lines before the next reapportionment. Rep. Tom DeLay and Republicans in the Texas Legislature didn’t agree, and they out-muscled their opposition.

In Illinois, a new round of redistricting would be even more unwise and unfortunate. After the 2000 Census, Democrats and Republicans negotiated a redistricting plan that both parties could accept, and dashing that agreement would make the state look like a third world country (or Texas), where might makes right.

Finally, though Georgia is the toughest example, I could not find fault with the Legislature redrawing lines, as long as the plan addressed only the most egregious examples of gerrymandering. The plan passed in 2001 was and remains indefensible — an example of partisanship and common sense run amuck. Making the most bizarre-looking districts more compact and contiguous would be an act of public service.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.