Thursday, June 29, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court & the Great, Continuous Gerrymandering Circus

By Diane Silver

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision upholding the Texas redistricting plan is complex and the legal implications are still uncertain. One thing, though, already seems possible: The Court may have just touched off the biggest rush to redistrict and gerrymander in the nation's history.

All of this may occur because the Court appears to have undermined the longtime tradition of only redistricting every 10 years. That was done so that the redrawing of district lines came when a new census was taken.

If the rush to redistrict happens, the political makeup of the U.S. House of Representatives and the balance of power in state legislatures may well shift -- and possibly shift and shift again.

And if that happens, it is anybody's guess as to which party will end up in control, and thus, what will happen to American foreign policy, schools, taxes, health care and a ton of other things.

Other problems would occur.

A voter may also live in one district one election and be moved to another district for the next election and a different district for a third election. To me, that seems like a prescription for making politicians even less accountable to voters than they are now. For one thing, how could you keep track of who your representative is?

By the way, you may find yourself scratching your head over all of this and wondering exactly what "redistricting" and "gerrymandering" are. I know I was a bit vague on it when I began covering the Kansas Legislature back at the dawn of time in the 1980s.

"Redistricting" is the act of redrawing the boundaries of the districts politicians represent. Because U.S. senators represent an entire state, this means that the districts in question only involve the districts of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the lawmakers elected to the Houses and Senates of each state.

Normally, redistricting maps are drawn by state legislatures, which means that the political party in power controls the lines on the maps and, thus, can create districts that favor their party's candidates.

In Kansas, for example, that means that the Republican-controlled Legislature always dilutes the power of the heavily Democratic city of Lawrence. The GOP chops us in two and mixes the offending Democratic halves with Republican areas.

Districts are supposed to be drawn to make geographic "sense" with neighborhoods and ethnic and minority groups kept together. Sometimes when that hasn't happened and particularly when the voting power of minorities appears to be unfairly diluted, federal courts have stepped in and drawn the maps.

"Gerrymandering" refers to the partisan political practice of drawing a district so that it looks more like a salamander than a district. Such districts can wiggle all over a map to capture a couple of blocks of Republicans here, avoid some Democrats there, and take in a few more Republicans miles away, for example.

Some experts like Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania,say they don't expect a rush to redraw district lines. He has some interesting points.You can see his thoughts on the decision at The Washington Post.

I hope he is right.

However, from what I saw in watching a state legislature for many years, I don't think you can discount the desperate need of politicians to stack the deck. That's as true of Democrats as it is of Republicans.

What I want to know now -- and wish I had time to research today -- is how many state legislatures are controlled by Republicans and how many by Democrats?

Here is some good commentary on the decision and a great collection of links.

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