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Jewish World Review April 23, 2001 / 30 Nissan, 5761

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY! -- IN the wake of Florida's presidential debacle, everyone is still talking about how to modernize voting machines and make sure that all votes count in a photo finish. But almost no one is paying attention to an arcane process that ultimately has a greater impact on who gets elected.

This year, the census has set in motion the redrawing of political districts. In many states, the process will result in sundered communities, Etch-a-Sketch gerrymanders, court suits and charges of discrimination. Just as citizens need not put up with spoiled ballots or vote fraud, they should also demand more order and fairness in what is now an ugly backroom practice.

Elbridge Gerry gave birth to the gerrymander in 1812, when, as governor of Massachusetts, he drew a district that resembled a salamander; his opponents named the creature after him. But such districts were child's play. Now, block-by-block computer maps of the nation allow the party in power to create maps with tortuous nooks and crannies. Too often, the result is a plan that allows elected officials to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

Twenty years ago, the late Rep. Phil Burton created an infamous gerrymander that he called "my contribution to abstract art." One district was an incredible 385-sided figure. Voters tolerate such mischief because they don't know about it. Despite fierce debate, a Field poll found that 41% of Californians had no opinion about the "Burtonmander." But when read a neutral description of gerrymandering, 82% of voters disapproved of the process, and only 10% favored it.

A 1986 Supreme Court decision held that gerrymandering that artificially entrenches a majority party over time may be unconstitutional, but set a very high bar for such challenges. However, post-Florida, there is an environment in which court challenges may be more likely, and in which talk of ways to cage the gerrymander is at least possible. So this could be a rare opportunity for genuine good-government reform.

Another reason for cautious optimism is that for the first time in generations both parties are going to be gored by gerrymanders. Democratic dominance of state legislatures vanished in 1994, and today Republicans control the governor's mansion and both legislative houses in 14 states, which together have 107 House seats. Democrats will control redistricting in 10 states with a total of 127 House seats. California's Democrats will deliver an updated version of the Burtonmander, while Florida's GOP legislature will draw friendly lines of its own.

The redistricting process has just gotten under way, but enough states have reported in to give a rough idea of how four distinct redistricting models work:

The Republican gerrymander. In 1991, Democrats controlled redistricting in Virginia and lumped 15 Republican state delegates into eight districts. But over time, even that plan couldn't prevent a 1999 GOP takeover of the state legislature. This census, Republicans hold the pen, and have designed a plan that lumps nine Democrats into four districts and divides some cities.

The Democratic gerrymander. Even though each party has one legislative house in Indiana, Democrats control the process because stalemates are settled by a commission that they dominate. The new congressional district map includes a seat designed to satisfy Democratic House Speaker John Gregg's yen to move to Washington. The 3rd District, which has combined South Bend and Elkhart together in the same district since 1932, has been renumbered, and the counties separated, to preserve a Democratic seat.

The 'Tiebreaker Is G-d' Commission. New Jersey Republicans would control the redistricting process save for the fact that under public pressure the legislature turned over the job to a bipartisan commission in 1979. The 10 members are joined by an independent, tiebreaking 11th member appointed by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Larry Bartels, a Princeton professor with well-known liberal views, was named the tiebreaker. He sided with Democrats who wanted to spread out minority voters so they would impact more of the state's 40 state legislature districts.

The new map reduced the number of majority-black districts to one from three. The GOP proposal preserved those seats and added a second majority-Hispanic seat. A federal judge has blocked the Democratic plan until he hears GOP arguments that it dilutes minority voting power. Last week's Supreme Court decision upholding a mild form of racial gerrymandering bolsters GOP arguments that New Jersey's plan improperly eliminates minority districts. It will also allow the GOP to forge opportunistic alliances with minority groups on redistricting.

The Computers Do It. Iowa is unique in that its redistricting is done by the professional staff of the legislature. They are charged with maintaining "the unity of counties and cities" and creating compact districts without regard to previous election results. By law, they cannot take into account where incumbents live, or any demographic information other than population.

This year, 50 of Iowa's 100 House members were tossed together in the same districts, along with 20 of the 50 senators. Even so, the staff-drawn plans for seats in Congress and the state legislature have a good chance of winning approval. If the legislature turns them down, they must call special sessions to vote on a second, and then a third plan.

Iowa Republicans now hold four of five congressional seats in a state that voted for Al Gore, so it's no surprise that they will lose a little advantage this year. A new urban district that combines Des Moines and Ames moves from a toss-up to narrowly Democratic. GOP Rep. Jim Leach's district adds enough Republicans so that the GOP has a chance to keep it when the 24-year veteran retires. GOP Rep. Jim Nussle and Democrat Leonard Boswell have safer seats, though Mr. Nussle will have to move. The only clear overall winners are the voters, who have five compact districts in which not a single one of the state's 99 counties is divided.

It certainly would be too much to expect states with a more partisan tradition and a larger minority population to emulate Iowa's good-government purity. But just as the war against chads won't be won in a day, states could adopt standards that prevent the worst gerrymandering abuses by demanding contiguity and compactness. Last year Arizona became the sixth state to have a commission draw its political boundaries.

Upon leaving office, Ronald Reagan promised that he would devote time and energy to "tell the American people the truth about how the electoral process has been distorted" by gerrymandering. His voice stilled, others must take up the call. Unless districts are fairly drawn to preserve competition and the idea of a political community, many elections, basically predetermined, will be rendered meaningless. When voters learn the truth, it becomes yet another reason for them to stop voting--as they are doing in growing numbers.

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


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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