Ben A. Franklin, Editor (ISSN: 0887-428X)

November 1, 2003

Volume 29, No. 20

2003 The Public Concern Foundation Inc.

STEALING ELECTIONS

In Texas, Gerrymandering Gets a New Name Perrymandering

Gerrymandering is the nearly two-centuries-old name for the sneaky manipulation of the borders of an election district to favor a political party. It was named for Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry when he first used it in 1811 to favor the election of candidates of his party, the Democrats. It has become bipartisanly notorious elsewhere since but rarely more so than this year in Texas, where Republicans led by Governor Rick Perry have been doing it blatantly, effectively changing the name to Perrymandering.

We asked two close observers of this redistricting outrage to give us a combat report. Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy and the author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org). The Center is the lead organizer of a "Claim Democracy" conference, to be held in Washington, D.C., on November 22-23. For more on that, see FYI.

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

After the release of new census numbers at the start of each decade, all legislative districts at the local, state and federal levels must be redrawn to make sure that they are approximately equal in population, which now means about 640,000 residents per U.S. House district. The redistricting plans are passed in state legislatures, like any bill, approved by a majority in both houses and signed by the governor.

When one political party controls the line-drawing process in its state, it has the God-like power to guarantee itself majority control and to decide who will win most races. The parties rely on techniques with names like "packing" and "cracking."

"Packing" puts as many of an opposing party's voters into as few districts as possible, sacrificing those districts but making all the surrounding districts more favorable to the manipulator's side. "Cracking" puts an opponent's voters into different districts, dividing and conquering. In recent years, powerful computers and databases have made the process of unnatural selection much more sophisticated and precise. Quite literally, politicians can hand-pick their voters before the voters have a chance to pick them.

The 2001 redistricting was perhaps the most flagrantly rigged insider's racket in decades, eliciting howls of protest even from establishment outlets like the Wall Street Journal. Voters typically were reduced to spectator status. Packed into one-sided districts designed to guarantee a safe seat for one party or the other, their votes were drained of vitality.

State legislative elections have been even less competitive than U.S. House races. Astoundingly, of the thousands of state legislative races over the last three election cycles, a whopping 40 percent were uncontested by one of the two major parties because the districts were so lopsided that it was a waste of campaign resources for the minority party even to try for those seats. That's two in five races where the only choice for voters was either to ratify the candidate of the dominant party or not vote at all. Many didn't. It was no surprise that voter turnout was 38 percent of American adults in 2002.

Research hasdemonstrated that the redistricting roulette determines the winners in most legislative races. Big campaign contributors curry favor by financing the predictable winner, but forget what you've heard about big money buying election outcomes in U.S. House races. The rigging of winner-take-all, single-seat districts is the political class's slickest slight of hand.demonstrated that the redistricting roulette determines the winners in most legislative races. Big campaign contributors curry favor by financing the predictable winner, but forget what you've heard about big money buying election outcomes in U.S. House races. The rigging of winner-take-all, single-seat districts is the political class's slickest slight-of-hand.

DO NOT ENTER

Behind closed doors, party leaders and incumbents produce bizarrely contorted legislative districts that one party leader called "any contribution to modern art." Their shapes resemble splattered spaghetti sauce, a squashed mosquito, meandering snakes, dumbbells, earmuffs, a starfish, a gnawed wishbone.

The bewildering shapes defy description or explanation other than as the capricious acts of a powerful class of politicians looking to guarantee themselves lifetime employment and party pre-eminence. When it comes to redistricting, the fox not only guards the hen house, the fox salivates at its good fortune. Politicized redistricting is a direct threat to key democratic values like electoral competition, representation, governance and choice for voters. Neither campaign finance inequities nor anything Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton did in the Oval Office will ever have as much impact on election outcomes as the partisan distortion of congressional districts around the country.

In George Bush's Texas, redistricting has been like a horror movie. Just when you thought one atrocity was over, it returned, and has kept returning. Republicans control the House of Representatives with a rigidity that only rarely can be affected by the votes of Democratic members. Because he is occasionally frustrated by the defection of Republican moderates, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has made it his urgent priority to increase the number of conservative Republicans in the House.

An opportunity presented itself when the Texas G.O.P. won control of the state legislature in 2002. This year Texas Republicans took the nearly unprecedented step of redrawing legislative district lines only two years after the 2001 redistricting call it re-redistricting. Back in 1991 an immaculate gerrymander by Texas Democrats had kept Republicans in the minority in the U.S. House even as they swept into all statewide offices. In 2001 a map ordered by a federal court upheld that as the status quo. So for DeLay and the Texas G.O.P. this year was payback time. They brazenly introduced a redistricting map designed to turn the 17-to-15 Democratic edge in House seats into a 22-to- 10 Republican super-majority.

GOING AWOL-Then things went really wacky. To prevent a quorum in the 150-seat Texas House, 51 Democratic legislators slipped away under cover of darkness. When word arrived that the legislators were in neighboring Oklahoma and beyond the reach of Texas law enforcement, a call for federal agents was placed to friends in the Bush administration. The Department of Homeland Security became involved, drawing angry denunciations from Democrats that the resources of a federal anti-terrorism agency were being diverted for partisan purposes.

Governor Perry did not back down. He called special session after special session in Austin. Democratic legislators fled again, holing up this time in New Mexico for weeks. But when one Democratic senator finally broke ranks and returned home, the handwriting was on the wall. Tom DeLay spent three days in Austin, huddled with Republican legislators on a new redistricting plan that was signed into law on October 13. Republicans are poised to gain up to seven House seats in Washington.

For average voters, all of this plays out like the royal intrigue of gods-on-high. Instead of conducting the nation's business, our political leaders are engaged in these sorts of back-room shenanigans. Safe seats, choiceless elections, little accountability, backstabbing stratagems, and Shakespearean plots that's what redistricting by incumbents produces. When politics is out of citizens' control, it is no wonder that so few people vote. There were a few other bare-knuckle partisan grabs for power. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, Republicans gained seats by forcing many Democrats to run against each other, cannibalizing their own. Maryland Democrats finally ousted Republican Representative Connie Morella by putting her in a redrawn district where Al Gore had won two-thirds of the vote.

In Colorado, Republicans solidified their hold this year by adopting a new plan that gave the Republican winner of the nation's closest congressional race in 2002 a brand-new safe seat that conveniently removed his 2002 opponent. The Colorado plan was introduced on a Monday and signed by the Republican governor that Wednesday.

NO TRESPASSING

In most states incumbent-protection was the rule. Typically after redistricting occurs at the start of each decade, about 120 out of 435 U.S. House seats are up for grabs. But this time, when the power-hungry partisans were through carving up the map, a mere 35 or so seats were competitive- only 8 percent of the total. Only four House incumbents lost to challengers in 2002 the fewest in history and fewer than one in 10 House races was decided by less than 10 percent of the vote. In short, incumbents and party leaders have gerrymandered districts to such an extreme that they have done away with competitive House elections in most states.

For the rest of this decade, the only choice most voters will have in House races is to ratify the nominee of the party that was handed their district, usually the incumbent. Voters don't need to even show up at the polls anymore, and increasingly they don't in the least contested races.

THE OUTLOOK

In their acclaimed recent book The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira contend that long-term demographic trends favor the Democratic Party. But redistricting completely undermines possible trends toward a Democratic majority. Structurally our 18th-century winner-take-all political system will continue to favor conservatives and the Republican Party, in part because the Republicans have been more conniving and successful at the redistricting roulette.

The problem is where Democrats live. Democrats tend to be heavily concentrated in urban areas, with Republicans more evenly dispersed in rural areas and suburbs. The result is that when the national vote is tied due to the distortions of the gerrymandered districts, Republicans still win a healthy majority of congressional seats.

Indeed in 2000, even as Al Gore beat George Bush by a half-million votes, and the combined center-left Gore-Nader vote had an even bigger lead, Bush beat Gore in 227 out of 435 U.S. House districts and in 30 of the 50 states. Revealing who won the upper hand in the 2001 redistricting, new U.S. House districts are even more lopsided, with Bush's advantage now rising to 237 Republican districts versus 198 Democratic. It's no coincidence that Republicans currently hold 229 U.S. House seats.

If the Democratic population increase emerges mostly in districts where Democrats are already strong, or in districts where the Democratic edge is not big enough to overcome safe Republican majorities, electoral results won't change. Ultimately it will take a supermajority of Democratic voters to win a bare majority of Democratic seats.

Thus, due to the distortions, peculiarities and the lack of proportionality built into our political system, with its hodgepodge of gerrymandered districts, winning a majority of votes does not necessarily mean that you end up with a majority of seats. The Democrats have engaged in their share of redistricting mischief, of course. In California's 2001 redistricting the House Democrats paid $20,000 apiece to their redistricting consultant-he happened to be a brother of one of the incumbents to have "designer districts" drawn for them in which they could not lose. To hear California Representative Loretta Sanchez talk about it, the money was tantamount to a bribe-the money you might pay to a Mafia don to protect your turf. "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat," Sanchez told a reporter, explaining that, "I spend $2 million on every election." The result in California was an unbroken parade of Democratic wins.

The Republican Party and its think tanks seem to understand this much better than the Democrats. Unless the unfairness is confronted by reformers, the structural bias of the redistricting process and the winner-take-all system will continue to trump the shifting demographics. Texas redistricting spotlights an even more disturbing development call it "apartheid redistricting." Tom DeLay's redistricting plan in Texas was designed to change the racial composition of the Texas congressional delegation so that it was more to his liking.

In 1993 Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor used "apartheid" to describe new redistricting plans in the South that created electoral opportunities for black candidates in many states there for the first time since Reconstruction. That was a twisted interpretation. Those redistricting plans were designed to integrate all-white delegations and correct some of the prevailing under-representation of blacks in our legislatures. Tom DeLay's Texas plan, crafted in consultation with the White House political guru Karl Rove and the conservative strategist Grover Norquist, had the goal of removing nearly every moderate and every white Democrat from the Texas congressional delegation and establishing an image of the two parties as consisting of a conservative, white G.O.P. and a contingent of liberal, non-white Democrats.

Richard Murray, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, predicted that the G.O.P. plan eventually would leave Texas without a single white-majority district represented by a Democrat. "This plan basically envisions all Democrats elected to Congress being either from Hispanic-majority or African-American-majority districts," Professor Murray said. Even if racial minorities pick up an additional seat, which is possible under the DeLay plan, it will come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Latino and AfricanAmerican voters now being "represented" by conservative Republicans rather than by more like-minded Democrats. In essence, the Republicans have sinisterly manipulated winner-take-all districts to pit the electoral opportunities of people of color against white moderate Democrats.

A DECADE OF DECADENCE With its big boost from the 2001-2002 redistricting, the G.O.P. dominance in the U.S. House likely has been locked in for the remainder of the decade. This has happened because G.O.P. leaders have encouraged attempts to draw districts that not only get rid of white Democrats, but also of moderate Republicans.

Increasingly, the House is populated by representatives to the left or right of most voters, and the political center of the House has moved sharply rightward. Safe seats have become the rule, blocking opportunities for women, people of color and other Democratic-leaning constituencies. Two-party politics is dead in most districts, and entire regions of America have become balkanized one-party fiefdoms. DeLay and the G.O.P. have engineered our antiquated winner-take-all system into a new kind of apartheid representation. This cannot help but further undermine confidence in our already shaky political system.

REFORMS FOR THE FUTURE

It's time to reform our winner-take-all system and the redistricting practices that are fundamental to it. Congress has full authority to regulate redistricting and could curb the worst abuses of voter choice. There are several options to consider. At the very least, the redistricting process should be a very public one, with full media coverage and citizen input. Even better, the redistricting process should be taken out of the hands of the incumbents and their parties, and given to independent bodies that use non-political criteria for district line-drawing. Arizona and Iowa use such "public interest redistricting" procedures, with generally positive results.

The redistricting process is the Achilles' heel of our winner-take-all system. As a result of partisan redistricting, the G.O.P. has emerged as the national winner at state and federal levels, not so much because they win more votes but because they have been smarter and more strategic in the redistricting process since 1991.

Republicans have made better use of computerized redistricting technologies and have targeted their resources on the right state and federal races. No other single factor, not even campaign finance inequities, has played so large a role in defining this electoral-system scam. And yet the entire process usually occurs with minimal public oversight. In fact, the process occurs behind closed doors, not necessarily in smoke-filled rooms but at computer terminals, with party leaders huddled with technocrats and consultants over their computer screens. Citizens who fail to demand openness and reform do so at democracy's peril.

How Redistricting Turns Off Voters

"First they gerrymander us into one-party fiefs. Then they tell us they only care about the swing districts. Then they complain about voter apathy." From an article by Gail Collins, the New York Times editorial page editor