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Slicing the Map

part 1 2 3 4

A Game of Chess

Political scientist John Alford of Rice University in Houston, is an expert on gerrymandering. He says Texas, despite its stature, was just another pawn in a national game.

"What happened in Texas over the last six years," says Alford "was that national forces came into Texas and took over the legislature of Texas in order to draw the congressional lines in a particular way. It was a strategy to gain secure control of the legislature in Texas, for the purpose of drawing congressional lines in Texas. Whatever you think of that strategy, and I happen to think it's a very brilliant strategy, it is not a strategy in which the interests of Texas come first. It's a strategy in which Texas is played like a Monopoly board for the interests of national parties."

It's not just Texas. And it's not just the Republicans. The thing about gerrymandering is that both sides have been at it.

It's September 2004, and the campaign season is in full swing. In Maryland, 34-year-old Republican Brad Jewitt is running for Congress against long-term incumbent, Democrat Steny Hoyer, in District 5. Gerrymandered by the Democrats after the 2000 census, Maryland has a six-to-two congressional split in their favor. That's left Jewitt, a former marine, fighting an uphill battle, on a boot-string budget. Hoyer has ten times the campaign money. And because of gerrymandering and the incumbency advantage, he's so confident of victory he's spending much of his time outside his home state campaigning for Democrats around the country. Meanwhile, Jewitt is working the crowds at the local fair. He approaches one woman.

"How you doing today, ma'am?"

"Hello. How're you doing?"

"I'm doing well."

"Good"

"My name's Brad Jewitt. I'm running for Congress in this district."

"I noticed." She laughs.

"Where do you live at?"

"In Clinton."

"In Clinton?"

"Um-hmm."

"Well, I'm running to represent you."

"Oh, okay."

"This is some information about me. If you wouldn't mind taking a look at it, I'd certainly appreciate it."

"All right."

"I need all the support I can get on November 2."

"Alrighty."

"All right?"

"Thank you."

Jewitt spots another woman.

"You live in Clinton as well?"

"No, I live in Upper Marlborough."

"Okay. Upper Marlborough is a split community, between the 4th and the 5th Congressional Districts, so it comes down really to where you live. Like right here? Is in the 5th District. Municipal Upper Marlborough is. But as you go out more north, for instance, it depends on what side of the street you're on."

"Okay."

So, what does Jewitt think of gerrymandering?

"It is confusing, and I think people get discouraged by the process. We are on the trail every day, and we run across people that are not even sure what district they're in. They don't even know who their congressman is. And sometimes, we don't either. We have a link on our website, that is to find an address. And sometimes, we have to physically type that address in to say, 'You're in our district,' or 'You're in the 4th District,' because communities are split. So, there's a real problem there when people don't even know who their representatives are and what district they're in."

Jewitt thinks this makes people less likely to vote.

"And that's really going to be the demise of our system if we don't get our arms around it. There's a genuine mistrust, I believe, of the political process in this country, and when we have processes that are broke, like redistricting, it just serves to further people's cause to say, 'I'm not going to be involved.'"

As it turned out, Brad Jewitt's round-the-clock campaigning failed. In November's election, this gerrymandered district saw Steny Hoyer beat Jewitt by 70 to 30 percent. As far as incumbents were concerned, it was the same picture across the country. Removing them via the ballot box has proved all but impossible.

"The 2004 elections were, for me, the least competitive in history," says Rob Ritchie from the Center For Voting and Democracy. "In 2002, only eight incumbents lost. But that was after the whole country had had districts changed because of the census in 2000 and redistricting. And going into 2004, only two states, Maine and Texas, had done redistricting, so 48 states had the same districts. And in those states, there were 400 incumbents running-nearly 400 incumbents-and only three of them lost, and only a handful of others were even brought within margins of less than ten percentage points. So that they were extremely safe, extremely entrenched. And this was true of both parties. Only one Democrat outside of Texas lost, and only two Republicans. And in some ways, this was for the House, a very status quo election. And it's getting very far away from what our founders saw the House of Representatives being."


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