Voters, beware. Redistricting is back. Every 10 years it revisits us like a recurring plague. This year's shenanigans show just why the renewed civic pride in the wake of September's terrorist attacks won't bring many disenchanted Americans back to the polls.
After the release of new census numbers, all legislative districts in the nation must be redrawn to make sure that they are closely equal in population. In the U.S. House, for example, that means about 639,000 residents for each district.
Whichever political party controls the line-drawing process has the God-like powers to guarantee themselves majority control and make or break individual political careers. They rely on "packing" and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as possible and "cracking" an opponent's natural base into different districts. Powerful computers and software have made this process of unnatural selection ever more sophisticated and precise.
Does it make a difference? You bet it does. In Virginia, the Democrats this year won their first statewide race for governor since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds' majority. How? That's right -- they drew this year's district lines.
The best example of partisan gerrymandering used to be California's congressional plan in the 1980s. Former U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, its chief architect, called it his "contribution to modern art." One district was a ghastly looking, insectlike polygon with 385 sides.
The result? In the 1984 elections the Democrats increased their share of California's house seats to 60 percent even as Ronald Reagan's landslide win helped Republican congressional candidates win more votes than Democrats in the state.
Computer technology makes such redistricting magic the norm. In some states one party indeed has stuck it to the other -- just ask a Republican who was mugged in Georgia or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan.
But 2001's real story is that both parties have often colluded to take on their real enemy: the voters. This year will go down in political history for the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a whole new level.
Take California -- please. The California Democratic Party controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their advantage rather than expand it. Incumbents certainly took no chances. U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic U.S. House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the powerful Democratic Party consultant in charge of redistricting.
The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez said that "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in."
California's Republican Party, which has vociferously opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute. That's because their pliant incumbents also were bought off with the promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough re-election battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free from serious competition for a decade.
The story has been the same in state after state. The Wall Street Journal in a November editorial on "The Gerrymander Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 U.S. House seats will be competitive next year. Already fewer than one in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins in 1998 and 2000.
The ones hurt by these backroom deals are the voters. For most voters, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we reform how we create districts.
There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. Following on the heels of Florida's election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our already shaky political system.
Richie and Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912.
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press