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Jewish World Review March 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Nisan, 5762

John H. Fund

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Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering -- Every census sets off a new round of political mischief called gerrymandering. For the past few months, state legislatures have been redrawing their own districts along with those for their state's congressional delegations--ostensibly to make sure each district has the same number of people. When one party controls the entire process (as is the case in 20 states this year) it routinely engages in blatant gerrymandering. When control over redistricting is split, both parties usually conspire in crafting pro-incumbent gerrymanders. We are now in danger of creating a system that allows elected officials to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

Elbridge Gerry (whose name was pronounced "Gary") gave gerrymandering its name in 1812 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he drew a district that his opponents said resembled a salamander. But Gov. Gerry's handiwork is child's play compared with what the latest computers can do. New software allows politicians to draw districts so partisan that the only way for an incumbent to lose is by alienating his party. In Michigan, a GOP-controlled legislature has created a congressional gerrymander that stuffs six Democratic incumbents into three seats. In Georgia, Democrats controlled the mapping pens and drew a congressional plan that pushed four GOP incumbents into two districts.

This kind of partisanship has long been tolerated by voters who view it as just politics or so much inside baseball. It's time they woke up. The new, computer-driven gerrymandering is now dramatically reducing political competition to the point that most voters will have no effective choice at all at the polls. In 2000, more than 20% of House members had no major party challenger. George W. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes, but 10 of the 21 Florida House incumbents ran unopposed. Political analysts in both parties agree that there will is significantly less competition under new district lines in 2002. Only some 30 of the 435 House seats will competitive this November.

In North Carolina gerrymandering is clearly predetermining political competitions. Last year, the Democrats rammed through a redistricting plan that effectively locks in their legislative control for the next 10 years. Nonpartisan analysts say that in the 120-member state House the number of safe Democratic seats has increased to 87 from 58. The number of "swing" or competitive districts was reduced to 20 from 46. In other words, less than one in five districts is winnable by either party barring extraordinary circumstances.

Would-be candidates pondering a run for state Legislature bailed out in droves once they got a look at gerrymandered districts. When filing closed earlier this month, a record 49 seats had only one candidate on the ballot. In the state Senate, 24 of the 60 seats will offer voters no choice this fall. So a stunning 43% of the North Carolina Legislature has, in effect, already been elected. Two years ago, only 19% of legislative elections in the House and Senate were uncontested.

Elections in many semifree Third World nations routinely offer more choices than many North Carolina residents will have. In the county that includes Charlotte, the state's largest city, only three of the 13 state legislative incumbents will face an opponent in the fall. In Greensboro, a freshman House Democrat named Katie Dorsett is running for a vacant state Senate seat and will be unopposed in both the primary and general election.

Courts have traditionally avoided becoming involved in challenges to gerrymanders, usually ruling that the process is inherently political. But last month, a North Carolina state judge, Knox Jenkins, ruled that the gerrymander was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily divides counties in violation of the state constitution. Lawyers for the Legislature argue that the need for the state to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act trumps the state constitution. But many other states have been able to square their state constitutions with the Voting Rights Act without having to draw absurd gerrymanders.

On Thursday North Carolina's Supreme Court unanimously enjoined the state from conducting its May 7 state legislative primaries pending a full hearing on Judge Knox's ruling next month. Yesterday the state's Board of Elections postponed all voting on that day, including the U.S. Senate primary.

Judge Knox will consider a request by several Republicans to have the gerrymandered districts redrawn. Throwing out the plan under which candidates have already filed would be unusual. Since the alternative Republican-drawn plans have their own clearly partisan tilt, the court would have to go through the arduous process of drawing its own maps.

But it's possible the court will find that this time the gerrymanderers in North Carolina have simply gone too far. Back in 1787, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an attempt by the state Legislature to take away the right of trial by jury. The court noted that if the Legislature could do that, "they might with equal authority . . . render themselves legislator of the State for life, without any further election of the people."

Two hundred fifteen years later, incumbents are using high-powered computers to create lifetime sinecures for themselves. That kind of privilege and protection is certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they overthrew a monarchy to form a republic.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund