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Re-redistricting: spectator sport for partisans

Wednesday, March 2, 2005 at 08:59AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal in Politics

According to Roll Call yesterday, “Some New York Democrats, increasingly confident that they can take over both the governorship and the state Senate next year, are talking openly of redrawing the Empire State’s Congressional lines before the next census — perhaps as early as in 2007.”

What do I think about that?

In brief, such a move would be the logical next escalation to a power game. The moves in the game do not come every day, but it is nonetheless a spectator sport for those who care, and we follow the players and their moves. If it gets too out of hand the owners of the league may need to intervene and revise the rules.  The referees -- the courts -- did not help in Texas. 

I used to be pretty obsessed with redistricting. The idea that you could draw lines and affect electoral outcomes was such a great nexus of politics, geography, campaigns, candidates, partisanship, technology and data that I kept returning to it. My interest goes way back:

· When I did a senior project in computer science in college, I made it about Voronoi diagrams, computational geometry and tied that to redistricting.

· For my second real job, I worked for a year (after the 1990 census) as a programmer for Election Data Services, a redistricting consulting firm.

· I wrote papers in graduate school on redistricting or voting rights cases (Shaw v. Reno, Growe v. Emison). I studied the political science and legal literature on the subject.

· After the 2000 census, I worked on some redistricting-related projects with Lisa Handley, a friend and an expert witness in many voting rights and redistricting cases, through an electoral consulting firm we started with two others.

One interesting fact to me is that political practitioners and journalists think that redistricting matters a great deal, while political scientists think its effects are modest. A good article to read on the subject can be found here: http://gking.harvard.edu/files/red.pdf.

But back to the rumors about a potential New York state re-redistricting. It has been the general practice of states to redistrict only when required -- when mandated after each ten-year census, or when courts determined that their previous plans were illegal. The most egregious redistricting or reapportionment abuses have come through failures to act, as the U.S. Congress did for a decade after the 1920 census, or many rural states did before Baker v. Carr (the one-man, one-vote decision). In those cases, failure to redistrict left in place a status quo that favored low-growth areas. Legislators represented districts with vastly different populations.

But Tom Delay and his allies in the Republican legislature in Texas went the other way and pushed through the re-redistricting of Texas, required to do so by nothing other than partisan opportunism. (They sought to replace a Democratic plan after they gained control of that increasing Republican state.)

The Republicans were playing extreme political hardball against Democratic congressmen: Martin Frost, Jim Turner, Nick Lampson, Charlie Stenholm, Chet Edwards and Max Sandlin. They were successful and only Edwards survived last fall’s election. It was a very big deal to those involved, and had a significant impact nationally – the lost seats made the net change between the parties in the U.S. House in last fall’s election.

The Texas example -- an innovation that obliterated understood rules -- is getting copied. The Republican controlled state of Georgia is finishing a similar re-redistricting plan today, attacking Democratic incumbents John Barrow and Jim Marshall and shoring up their own. There is talk of similar action in Illinois or Louisiana.

(Footnote or disclosure: every one of these Members of Congress was or is a client of my firm, so it is business as well as politics and principle to me.)

So now we Democrats, currently powerless in Georgia and Texas, are looking for a way to retaliate for, or deter against further instances of this re-redistricting practice.  We are looking to states that we control, like New York and Illinois.

If this continues to escalate, at some point the excesses will require legislative or legal intervention. Non-partisan solutions, like commissions or panels of retired judges may show up in more states.

Until then, it's just one more battle in the partisan wars.

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Reader Comments (2)

When your opponent consistently cheats in any game, and gets away with it, the effect is essentially a change in the rules. What the Republicans did in Texas was an outrage, and they got away with it. The referees are the courts, and they're allowing it. Democrats have to decide, are we gracious losers who play by the rules, or do we cheat as our opponents do and recognize these as the new rules? I waver. Being right is small comfort when losing to a cheater.
March 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChris Casey
I can say this... if Louisiana opens up redistricting again (which I HIGHLY doubt), it should go in our favor. Dems have at least a 2-to-1 margin in both houses in the La. Legislature, not to mention a Dem. governor. I'd think any objective redistricting there might result in us picking up seats. (La. has 2 Dems to 5 Repubs in congress, yet the state is solidly 50-50 in terms of avg. Democratic performance).

I'm sure I'll end up posting more about redistricting in general a little later.
March 3, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJames Nail

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