Redistricting Must Be Fixed Before Census

Posted July 28, 2008 at 2:55pm

Partisan abuse of redistricting is one of Congress’ dirtiest little secrets. The outrage over partisan gerrymanders fades well before the next census rolls around, and this travesty of our democracy never gets addressed.

Backroom deals by both parties have produced bulletproof districts from Florida to California, fueling voter apathy and undermining our democracy. Elections are determined before the voters ever have the chance to go to the polls.

Tonight, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and other Members will take to the House floor to draw attention to the abuses of the redistricting process. Last week, Tanner and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) introduced H.Res. 1365, advocating the use of nonpartisan redistricting commissions to draw Congressional districts. This resolution, and an earlier bill to revamp the process, will not endear these Members to many of their colleagues sitting in completely safe districts, virtually assured of re-election after re-election.

With redistricting abuses on the rise, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the problem. Our organization, the Campaign Legal Center, along with the League of Women Voters, the Council for Excellence in Government and a diverse group of advisory organizations, have founded a new organization called Americans for Redistricting Reform. With financial assistance from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the goal of Americans for Redistricting Reform will be to raise awareness of the problem, promote solutions and serve as a clearinghouse of information and networking. More information can be found on ameri cansforredistrictingreform.org.

Our organizations see the launch of this group as vitally important work, as our nation prepares for the upcoming 2010 Census and another round of redistricting, one that will surely be marked by gross partisan gerrymandering unless there is reform of the redistricting process.

Redistricting abuses may have evolved into more of an exact science, but the practice is nearly as old as districts themselves. The term “gerrymandering” dates back to 1812, when a partisan redistricting in Massachusetts resulted in a district that one newspaper editor observed looked like a salamander and dubbed it a “Gerrymander” after the state’s governor, Elbridge Gerry. Since that time, gerrymanders have taken different forms. Parties have used racial gerrymandering to dilute minority voting strength, partisan gerrymandering to solidify one-party control, and bipartisan gerrymandering to protect Representatives from both parties.

The post-2000 redistricting cycle saw unprecedented efforts to use redistricting for partisan purposes. Technological advances made it possible to calibrate districts using election data with even greater precision. The result was that the 2002 elections produced the fewest ousted incumbents ever — only four Members were voted out of office. Historically, post- redistricting elections have generally been more competitive because the drawing of new lines mitigates incumbents’ advantage by introducing them to a new group of voters. The 2000 redistricting round had the opposite effect.

As redistricting has become ever more clinical, moderates from both parties have been driven from Congress in droves. In 2002, one of us saw our Representative voted out of office after 16 years as a result of a redistricting in Maryland designed for just that purpose. Rep. Connie Morella was a moderate Republican, popular with colleagues from both parties, who would cross the aisle and her party’s leadership in order to pass common-sense legislation for the good of her constituents and the nation. As moderates like Morella have disappeared from the halls of Congress, the partisan gridlock has sunk deeper roots into Capitol Hill to the detriment of our democracy.

Even after the initial round of redistricting following the 2000 Census, partisans in some states used mid-decade redistricting, or re-redistricting, to further advance partisan goals. A handful of states attempted to redraw existing, valid district lines. Absent a court order invalidating a redistricting plan, there is unlikely any other purpose that motivates a mid-decade redistricting other than partisan gain.

Make no mistake, when politicians engage in extreme partisan gerrymandering, it is the voters who suffer. In the case of Texas’ mid-decade redistricting, in which one of us represented most of the Congressional delegation’s Democrats, the Republican Party gained seats in the short term but the state lost critical seniority when the Democrats regained the majority in the House.

Texas Democrats who lost their seats in the gerrymander led by then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) would likely have been holding vast power in Congress today, such as Martin Frost, who could be chairing the Rules Committee; Charlie Stenholm, Agriculture; Jim Turner, Homeland Security; and Max Sandlin, a Ways and Means subcommittee. The junior Republicans from Texas who replaced those powerful incumbents have very little influence in the House. DeLay’s scorched-earth policy on re-redistricting left citizens of the Lone Star State holding the bag.

Partisan abuse of redistricting is a shameful blot on our democracy. Politicians have absolutely no business choosing their voters. In a true democracy, voters must choose their politicians. In the 110th Congress, two bills, H.R. 543 and H.R. 2248, have been introduced to overhaul the nation’s redistricting process, but both have been referred to a subcommittee where they have yet to see the light of day. At the very least, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) owe it to the nation to see that hearings are held on these bills. The system must be changed, and hearings are the first step.

The 2010 Census is just around the corner with partisan gerrymanders close at its heels. If we don’t move quickly, the train will have left the station yet again and Congress will feign dismay and continue to talk about the need to fix the system the next time around.

J. Gerald Hebert is executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and represented Congressional Democrats in the Texas redistricting case decided by the Supreme Court in 2006. David G. Vance is director of communications and research at the Campaign Legal Center. Both helped launch Americans for Redistricting Reform.