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The New Redistricting

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Sophisticated New Redistricting Tools

Our story starts on the campaign trail in Texas. It's show time at the Mesquite Rodeo where the cowboys are trying to stay on the bucking broncos for longer than eight seconds.

"It's Josh Cole, Texas cowboy," touts the announcer. "It's a good horse and a good cowboy. Here we go."

The band plays, a buzzer sounds, the crowd cheers, and then the crowd groans.

Sadly, this young cowboy takes a tumble. That feeling of being abruptly unseated has now become a familiar one to members of the Democrats' congressional delegation from Texas, and it's because of gerrymandering - the redrawing of district lines for political advantage - which is quietly, but stealthily, changing the face of American democracy.

The power of line-drawing is quite extreme, and at this point, it's largely unregulated. People can, in most states, do whatever they can get away with.

"It was very important to me," says Phil King, Texas State Representative, "to make sure that our president from Texas, George Bush, had a Republican House to work with him on his agenda in his second term."

Jim Dunnam, Texas House member, sees it differently. "What this was clearly an attempt by the people in power to change the result of elections by artificial means. And that is not democracy."

The U.S. political system is often believed to be all about government for the people, by the people. But, in the last few years, the booming practice of gerrymandering is having a deep and lasting impact on American democracy. That impact can be seen in Texas, the setting for one of the most controversial and bitterly contested re-districting fights ever witnessed.

Thanks to sophisticated computer programs, political boundaries all over the United States are being redrawn to all but guarantee results. Gerrymandering has also led to some strangely shaped congressional districts. One's known as the "strip of bacon" because it's long and thin; another supposedly resembles a "supine seahorse." A third, an "upside down Chinese dragon." Whatever that is.

Simply by redrawing the lines of his district with the click of a mouse, the Republicans, who hold power in Texas, forced Democratic Congressman Jim Turner into a district he knew he couldn't possibly win. That's why Turner, after 8 years in Congress, simply chose to quit.

"The redistricting lines that were drawn by the Republicans in Texas," says Turner, "were clearly aimed at trying to eliminate as many Democrats as possible from the Texas delegation to Congress. And so I happened to be, I guess, the member that was targeted most effectively, because my district was cut into 6 different pieces. And the part that I live in was put into a district that's been represented by a Republican congressman for almost 20 years. And that district was heavily Republican. So, it didn't take too much analysis to know that I had no reasonable chance of being elected in that district. So I chose not to seek re-election."

The U.S. Constitution requires that a census is taken every ten years and the results used to redraw congressional boundaries. The founding fathers expected their new country to grow. Redistricting would take into account population shifts. By and large, the boundaries are redrawn by the party in control of each state legislature at the time. In Texas, there was deadlock between the parties in 2001, the regular year for redistricting, so the job was handed to the courts, which drew boundaries that preserved the Congressional majority of the Democrats.

But when the Republicans took control of the state House a year later, they returned to the redistricting table, setting out to eliminate seven Democratic seats. With minority representation protected by the Voting Rights Act, the seats affected belonged to senior, white Democrats, among them, Dallas congressman Martin Frost.


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