August 2010, Week 4


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Sun, 22 Aug 2010 23:30:50 -0400
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The Next Redistricting Battle
Paul Waldman
The American Prospect -- web only
August 17, 2010 
Were he around today, Elbridge Gerry would no doubt
complain that history has sullied his name. Following
the 1810 census, Gerry, as governor of Massachusetts,
signed off on a redistricting map including one district
that looked to a newspaper editor like a salamander. The
paper called it a "gerrymander," and the name stuck. But
the district in question was far less sinuous and
stretched than the districting modifications we
routinely see today, two centuries later. The increasing
sophistication of mapping software and the copious
amounts of data available on all of us have made it
possible to draw maps with extraordinary precision, down
to the household. Districts for both state legislators
and members of Congress wind crooked paths down city
streets, skirt unfriendly neighborhoods, and pack
unfriendly voters into districts where they can be

As Washington wonders whether the shudder-inducing words
"Speaker of the House John Boehner" will soon be on lips
across the country, the implications of the fall
elections for our political geography has gone largely
without notice. Elections for control of state
legislatures will also be taking place, and though most
people know little if anything about who represents them
in state capitols, this year it matters a great deal: We
just completed a census, and legislatures in most states
will be redrawing the boundaries of congressional
districts in 2011.

In bad economic times, the electorate grows surly, and
if "Throw the bums out!" is the prevailing mood, you're
in trouble if you're one of the bums. That presents
Democrats with a problem: They are the face of the
political establishment not just nationally but in
states as well.

Today, Democrats control 27 state legislatures, compared
to the 14 Republicans control (eight are split, and
Nebraska has a nonpartisan unicameral legislature). This
was a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago: In
the previous three election cycles, Democrats gained a
net of 374 state house seats and 68 state senate seats.

But that success has made them vulnerable, in much the
same way as the gains made by congressional Democrats in
2006 and 2008 made them vulnerable. Democrats have to
defend a lot of unsafe ground, including seats they
managed to win in traditionally conservative districts.
That makes for an unusually competitive year; according
to Governing magazine's Louis Jacobson, "Just under one-
third (31 percent) of the legislative chambers that are
up this fall are considered 'in play' -- that is, rated
tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. . Currently,
the Democrats have 21 chambers in play, compared to just
four for the Republicans -- a burden five times as heavy
for the Democrats."

Which means that the Democrats will almost certainly
lose their majorities in at least some legislative
chambers they currently control. But that doesn't mean
they'll inevitably lose out when the maps start being

The parties will be fighting over the 36 states that
have partisan redistricting, where legislatures control
the process; in the other states, independent
commissions are responsible for drawing the maps. (If
you want to find out how things work in your state, you
can find that information here.) It's about as intensely
political a process as one can imagine, because the
stakes are so high. Draw the map cleverly, and you can
win your party an extra seat -- or two or five -- long
before ballots are cast. To prevail, one needs not only
to be in charge of the process but to have the most
sophisticated map-drawers, the savviest negotiators, and
the best lawyers for the inevitable legal challenges.

After the 2000 census, Republicans controlled most of
the country's state legislatures and used them
mercilessly. For instance, Republicans in Pennsylvania
drew the lines so that they ended up holding 12 of the
state's 19 congressional districts, despite the fact
that it was (and remains) a Democratic-leaning swing
state. The GOP managed similar outcomes in Florida and
Ohio. In the time since, however, Democrats have
invested heavily in preparing for the next round of
redistricting, creating a spate of organizations most
Americans have never heard of. There's the Democratic
Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats in
states get elected, with an eye toward maintaining as
many of those precious majorities as possible; the
National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which is
preparing to fight legal battles over redistricting; and
the Foundation for the Future, which is assembling the
data necessary to arm Democratic map-drawers.

The Republicans have their counterpart organizations --
there's Making America's Promise Secure (or MAPS), and
the Redistricting Majority Project (or REDMAPS). But the
current consensus seems to be that Democrats are better
prepared for this arcane process.

But the battles will be intense, particularly in states
that stand to lose congressional seats (like
Pennsylvania and Ohio) or gain seats (like Texas) when
the census counting is done. And if Democrats lose big
in November, they'll be starting at a serious

With all the legal preparation, this could end up being
the most heavily litigated redistricting season in
memory. And that could give momentum to reformers who
want every state to adopt a nonpartisan, independent
redistricting commission, so the process isn't dominated
by the party that finds itself on top after the census.
If gerrymandering became a thing of the past, Elbridge
Gerry would probably be pleased.

A Citizen's Guide to Redistricting
By Justin Levitt with Bethany Foster
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University
School of Law

[moderator: this is a 113 page pdf file.  It's longer
than regular Portside posts and a little dated now --
however, if you would like to be empowered on 
redistricting it's a great resource.]

There are many different ways to figure out which voters
are grouped together to elect a representative. Whether
the way that districts are currently drawn in any given
state is good or bad depends on what you believe the
goals of the process to be. Some stress objectivity;
some independence; some transparency, or equality, or
regularity, or other goals entirely. There is ample
debate among scholars, activists, and practitioners
about the role of political insiders, the nature of
protection for minority rights, the degree of partisan
competition or partisan inequity, and the ability to
preserve established or burgeoning communities. But to
date, this discussion has been inaccessible to most of
the people directly affected. 

This publication is intended to present the
redistricting process for state and federal government,
and for many local governments, in digestible parts.
There are many moving components, complex issues that we
attempt to describe in simple and straightforward
fashion, piece by piece. This is a guide to the rules
for drawing district lines - a description of how it
works today, how it could work in the future, and what
it all means. Consider it an owners' manual, for those
who should own the process: we, the people.


Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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