Deborah Amos: From American Public Media this is Carving Up the Vote, a documentary by American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. I'm Deborah Amos.
Every ten years the boundaries of your local voting district are up for change. That's supposed to keep elections fair. But political parties are slicing up the map in ways the founding fathers never imagined.
Martin Frost: It can be used to preserve their majority in the House of Representatives long past the time when they have a majority in the country.
Amos: You've heard about soft money contributions and the influence of Washington lobbyists on American politics. Now consider gerrymandering.
Jim Dunnam: You can permanently alter the power structure of the U.S. Congress for a generation. And that is not democracy.
Amos: Over the coming hour, in Carving Up the Vote, from American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. First this news.
Amos: From American Public Media, this is Carving Up the Vote, a documentary by American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. I'm Deborah Amos.
The news this election year was filled with reports about voting problems: glitchy voting machines, faulty voter rolls, polling-place intimidation. But one hugely influential issue got little attention: gerrymandering.
American politicians have been tinkering with the boundaries of their electoral districts for decades. But in the last five years, the practice exploded. In 2004, it led to the least competitive race for the U.S. House of Representatives in memory. Critics warn that gerrymandering is a threat to the very principles of democracy. The partisan re-mapping of electoral districts was so effective in 2004 that many incumbents ran virtually unopposed. Gerrymandering was especially influential in the Texas congressional elections. Our story starts on the campaign trail in Texas, with the BBC's James Silver.
Announcer: It's Josh Cole, Texas cowboy. It's a good horse and a good cowboy.
James Silver: It's showtime at the Mesquite Rodeo where the cowboys are trying to stay on the bucking broncos for longer than eight seconds.
Announcer: Here we go!
[Band music. Buzzer. Burst of cheering turns quickly to groans.]
Well, the cowboy comes down early.
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.
Rob Ritchie: The power of line drawing is quite extreme, and at this point it's just the wild west; people can, in most states, do whatever they can get away with.
Phil King: It was very important to me 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: 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.
Silver: In Britain, we've always believed that U.S. politics is 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's why I've come to 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 U.S. 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, chose simply to quit.
Jim Turner: The redistricting lines that were drawn by the Republicans in Texas 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.
Silver: 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.
[Sounds of large group of people eating and talking.]
It's Labor Day and I've come to a Martin Frost fund-raising breakfast.
While Jim Turner is standing down, Congressman Frost has decided to fight on in a new district.
The new boundaries heavily favor the Republican incumbent, but Frost isn't about to go quietly.
This race has turned into a good, old-fashioned, political street fight and it's one of the highest-spending congressional races in the country.
Martin Frost: And you know, in this election, some people have said that I'm running for my life. That's not true. I'm running for your lives.
Silver: Martin Frost is running for your lives, he's just told his die-hard fans here.
Unsurprisingly, he's got raucous support from the unions, minorities, party members who pound the streets and hit the phones on his behalf.
But there's frustration here, too, and it's all because of what's being viewed as the Republican's brazen gerrymander.
Frost Supporter 1: It abused the tradition in the Congress; it was always strictly heavy-handed politics to quash the working people's voice.
Silver: Is there a lot of anger among-among supporters, among grassroots people like yourself?
Frost Supporter 1: This is probably one of the largest turnouts I've seen at a Labor Day function, and I've been with him for 26 years. So I think there's a lot of anger, and it's not just people in this district but it's just the working people in general that are angry.
Frost Supporter 2: Maybe it's a wake up call to the Democrats to, "Hey, this is not right, and we're gonna vote this time in large numbers."
Frost Supporter 3: I think the redistricting was a ploy to hurt the Democrats. However, we're going to prevail, and we're going to make it work for us.
Frost: This is a fight to the finish. Now what does that tell you?
Silver: After the breakfast Congressman Frost tells me the Republicans are trying to turn Texas "into a one party state."
But the shadow of gerrymandering falls far beyond Texas.
Frost: It can be used by one party or the other to preserve their majority in the House of Representatives long past the time when they have a majority in the country. And so it can alter the course of legislation. That could cause the national legislature to be deadlocked or could cause the national legislature, the Congress, to move in a direction which is really contrary to majority sentiment in the country.
Silver: Frost was forced out of his own district by the new plan and into a much more competitive race.
Frost: I am facing a Republican incumbent who is very far to the right, and I've always been in the middle of the political spectrum, been a moderate Democrat. And my opponent will have a lot of money, and I've raised a good bit of money. And it's a real slugfest, and we'll see what happens.
Silver: At this point, Martin Frost is talking the talk, but many observers don't share his confidence.
And in some quarters, there is little sympathy for him either.
Prior to 2003's map re-drawing, the most significant gerrymander in Texas was carried out by the Democrats in 1991.
They carved up the state to favor their side, and the figure at the helm back then was one Martin Frost.
So, according to Rob Ritchie, Executive Director at the Center For Voting And Democracy, a non-profit electoral reform group, 2003 was payback time.
Ritchie: Martin Frost was a major player in the 1991/'92 redistricting and Republicans have been itching to get after him for years. And what they ultimately did was put him in a district where, all things being equal, the Republican candidate almost certainly would win.
Silver: Yet this isn't one man's story, nor is it simply about swapping one bunch of politicians for another.
Nathaniel Persily: I'm the person that gets called in when there's a disaster. The bald spot on my head is due to most of my redistricting work.
Silver: For Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at Pennsylvania University, redrawing boundaries is a stressful business.
He's carved up maps all over the U.S., from New York to Georgia.
And he says gerrymandering has far reaching implications, not least, in matters of race.
Persily: Martin Frost represents a dying breed of white, conservative Democrats in the South. And what the Republicans have done in Texas and elsewhere, they've successfully targeted all of those white Democrats. And they're trying to make the Democratic party in the South, largely, the party of African Americans and Hispanics.
Silver: Although it's grown increasingly partisan, the practice of gerrymandering isn't exactly new.
Indeed, the term can be traced all the way back to 1812.
Persily: The word gerrymander, itself, actually came from Eldridge Gerry, who was the governor of Massachusetts, who drew a district like a salamander to group his opponents into one district in Massachusetts 200 years ago. And so these types of shenanigans have been a part of the American landscape for some time.
Silver: In the 1960s voting rights activists protested at the way some states had failed to
redraw their congressional boundaries for decades.
That stalling led to districts of wildly unequal populations.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision changed that.
Columbia Law School professor Samuel Issacharoff.
Samuel Issacharoff: Beginning in the 1960s, the Supreme Court said you must redistrict every 10 years, and you must make sure that the populations are more or less equal across the districts. So we've only had a few cycles of the redistricting, and the first objective was to make sure the population numbers were the same. The problem was that it was left in the hands of the same partisan officials who stood to gain from redistricting. And, as a result, they found that they could keep the population numbers the same while achieving extraordinary partisan objectives.
Silver: Chief among those objectives was to protect incumbent congressmen at all costs.
And that led to a political map, which actually changed little over the last half century.
Rob Ritchie again.
Ritchie: The Democrats really were the dominant political party in this country after World War II. They controlled the House of Representatives from 1954 to 1994, almost always winning at least 60% of House seats. And they controlled most state legislatures. So when they were doing redistricting, you had the incumbents, being mostly Democrats, closely working with state legislators, who were a majority Democrat, in drawing districts that typically helped Democrats. Texas is an example of one of the states that was changing politically during that time, however. It went from a strongly Democratic state to one that, at this point, is very much dominated by Republicans. But one of the parts of the-Sort of the Alamo kind of last stand for Democrats was the 1991 redistricting where they still had complete control of the process. And they did definitely the best gerrymander in any state of that decade, at least the one that most was transparently measurable.
Silver: That gerrymander in 1991, was ruthlessly effective in maintaining the Democratic bias in the state's congressional delegation.
But in 2002, the Republicans gained complete control of the state of Texas for the first time in 130 years.
What they did next, mid-decade redistricting, was unprecedented.
Texas, remember, had just got new districts in the wake of the 2000 census. Two years later, the Republicans decided to have their crack at it.
Christian station plays on the car radio.
Announcer: Only those who are marked by the blood of Jesus Christ will be permitted to enter eternal life with Almighty God. You're listening to TruNews.
Silver: I'm in the town of Weatherford, one hour west of Dallas.
Christian stations play on the car radio.
I've come here to meet Republican State Representative Phil King, the man who steered the 2003 redistricting bill through the Texas house.
A former cop, King is an attorney who wears his faith on his sleeve.
Outside his law office is a sign bearing the 10 Commandments.
King: I'm a Christian and, you know, I recognize who made me. And, I read the Bible, because it helps me keep a true course.
Silver: A straight talker, King is blunt about what he was trying to do.
King: The redistricting bill was something that myself and some other members had began to work on several years earlier, because we thought it was right for Texas. We knew that if we could add 5 to 7 seats to the Republican numbers in Congress, that it would be virtually impossible for the Republicans to lose the majority in the U.S. Congress during President Bush's second term.
Silver: He fervently maintains that, statewide, Texans back the Republicans.
And the facts will bear him out.
In the November elections in Texas, George W. Bush will get 61% of the popular vote, to John Kerry's 38%.
King: We drew a map that probably increased Republican congressional seats from 15 to at least 20, maybe 22 in a really good year. It's not what you'd call a political coup. If we'd have taken it and taken 28 of 32 seats or 25 of 32 seats, or something of that nature, you might have understood why the Democrats went so crazy over it.
Amos: You're listening to Carving Up the Vote, a documentary from American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. I'm Deborah Amos. Coming up, how redistricting in Texas affected Washington, D.C.
Dunnam: These are people that want to change the outcome of the elections by going back after the fact and changing the boundary lines to shuffle up the voters, and really, artificially change the power structure in the entire United States.
Amos: Stay with us. The program continues in just a moment, from America Public Media.
Amos: From American Public Media, this is Carving Up the Vote, a documentary by American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. I'm Deborah Amos.
Every ten years, state legislatures examine their electoral maps. If the voting population in a district changes too dramatically, civic-minded local lawmakers are supposed to change district boundaries so that each part of the community is equally represented. That's the theory, anyway. As the BBC's James Silver explains, the reality can be open political warfare.
Dunnam: My name is Jim Dunnam and I'm a Texas House member. And I'm the Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in Texas. This is the House chamber and it's a rather imposing and beautiful room. On the walls, you'll see people that I think people around the world will recall: Davy Crockett, Audie Murphy who won the Congressional Medal Of Honor, and the founders of Texas, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.
Silver: When the Texan Republicans attempted to push through their redistricting plan in the summer of 2003, 52 House Democrats took drastic action.
They fled across the state border to Oklahoma, to deprive the House of the quorum needed for bills to become law.
The fugitive Texas Democrats became known as the Killer D's.
As far as they were concerned, flight beyond state jurisdiction was the last, desperate attempt to kill the bill's progress.
They boarded buses pursued by the authorities.
The result? A political farce, Texas style.
Dunnam: We showed up on Sunday night at a hotel right here in Austin, and we counted heads. And we really didn't know we were really going to leave until we sat there and everybody showed up. And we counted to 52, and we all got on a bus, and we headed north.
Silver: And suddenly you found yourself in the midst of a media storm.
Dunnam: Yeah, it was-It was not anticipated. But, it was an experience for us; it was an experience for our families. They had Texas Rangers following our family here at home. My child, for example, who was in 2nd grade at the time, had an adult at school come up and say, "Do you know where your daddy is?" in an inappropriate manner. I was proud of him. He said, "Yeah, he's on the front page of the paper."
NPR theme music
Reporter: The Democrats held a press conference Tuesday in front of the Holiday Inn in Ardmore. Sounding more defiant than ever, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Jim Dunnam made it clear who the group blames for their trip across state lines.
Dunnam: We're here in Ardmore, Oklahoma, because the real problems of Texas-our budget problems, our school financing problems, our health care problems-they're being cast aside because of a power play by Tom DeLay.
Silver: Meanwhile, back in Austin, the state capital, the remaining House representatives found themselves confined to the chamber with the doors locked.
In a tradition that goes back to the days of the Wild West, lawmakers can be stopped from leaving the chamber.
Republican Phil King was caught unawares.
King: We come in Monday morning and, sure enough, only Republicans were there and a handful of 4 or 5 Democrats who had not left the state. At first it seemed a little comical, because this had never happened before, and we didn't know what to do. But after you've ordered fajitas for 100 people that evening, it begins to get a little bit serious. It was embarrassing. We became the laughingstock of the media. All of a sudden CNN and FOX and everybody descended on the state capitol with cameras showing our empty halls. You know, there's nothing wrong with losing on an issue. It's wrong to cut and run.
Dunnam: These are people that want to change the outcome of elections by going back after the fact and changing the boundary lines to shuffle up the voters, and really artificially change the power structure in the entire United States. Because if you can change seven districts in Texas, and you can change five districts in Ohio and two districts in Colorado, you can permanently alter the power structure of the U.S. Congress for an generation. And that is not democracy.
Silver: And so, after 4 days, the Killer D's returned to Austin.
When the bill passed to the state Senate in July, a similar plot among Democrats there was being hatched.
This time they would go to New Mexico.
Leticia Van de Putte, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus in Texas, takes up the story.
Leticia Van de Putte: At 8:30 on Monday morning, I set in motion to have the planes on the tarmac here in Austin. I made the call. There was only one other person that knew our destination; the senators did not know. And when they voted to break quorum, they didn't know I had the planes ready. But, from the time we left the capitol to the time we were wheels up was about 40 minutes. And I did not let them know where we were going until we were already in the air.
Silver: And you stayed in the hotel for how long?
Van de Putte: 47 days.
Silver: 47 days?
Van de Putte: Yes.
Silver: What was that like, because you were under ...
Van de Putte: ... a lot of pressure.
Silver: ... intense scrutiny?
Van de Putte: There's a picture that hangs in my office that shows us at the press conference. And if you could see the looks on those eleven senators' faces, it is one of resolve; it is one of seriousness. We didn't want to be there. We knew that it was very drastic. But it was the only way that we could call attention to this.
Silver: Despite the best efforts of the Killer D's, the Republican plan was passed in October 2003.
For the second time in two years, Texas had new congressional districts, leaving the Democrats fuming and the Republicans celebrating.
Scott Simms: This is a precinct, an election precinct. It's actually precinct 308 in Midland, Texas. And, I can find out, if I can select it. Where is it?
Silver: Scott Simms is a policy analyst for the Texas House speaker, Republican Tom Craddick.
Simms is the man who wielded the scalpel with the skill of a cosmetic surgeon in the 2003 gerrymander.
He carved up the state's electoral lines using highly sophisticated, yet inexpensive, computer software.
In fact, technology has transformed the science of redistricting.
Where once the process was undertaken by people pouring over thousands of maps, now entire districts are changed at the click of a mouse.
Simms: I can select this assignment unit, [mouse clicks twice] and I know that there are 6,300 people living in that district. And then it breaks it down by the voting ages.
Silver: And you can tell, also, how they voted, their turnout.
Simms: Right. There are 2,700 of those 6,300 people actually registered; only 900 of them voted. Okay?
Silver: A very low percentage.
Simms: A very low percentage, in 2002. Who knows what that reason was, but that's a Democrat precinct. There's no doubt about it.
Silver: Armed with such precise information, even down to a block-by-block level, Scott Simms' job was to draw a map, which would tilt the advantage firmly in the Republican's favor.
Simms: My boss is a partisan. He's an elected Republican.
Silver: Speaker Craddick was open about this, that he wanted a map that reflected the Republican nature of Texas.
Simms: I think that's a fair way to say it, because Texas is a Republican state, and the districts had been drawn in the past, that protected a long-standing majority, even though they no longer were. So, when Martin Frost acts like he's pure as the driven snow in this, he's-he's whistlin' past the graveyard.
Tamara Bell: Okay. Yeah, you can probably park anywhere around here. [Car door opening] And then we can just get out and walk, and try to find it.
Silver: Tamara Bell works for Democrat Jim Dunnam. She's also a long time Austin resident.
Until the latest map, her city was a single congressional district.
Now it's been divided into three.
And each new, exotically-shaped slice stretches for hundreds of miles across Texas.
She takes me to see a spot, which the locals have been talking about.
Sound of cars driving past
Silver: We're standing near an intersection in downtown Austin. We're facing a cafeteria on one side, a residential street to our left, a parking lot straight ahead of us, and to our right, a very busy highway. And we're standing on a strip of grass that may be one of the more politically significant strips of grass in the state of Texas.
Bell: This patch right here is where three congressional districts in Texas meet: Congressional District 25, 10 and 21. Now that's significant, because a year ago, this whole area was District 10. We had one congressman that we knew, who knew us. We could, you know, call his office, and he understood the concerns of Austin. And right now, we are now split between three congressmen. District 10 goes from this point east through some sparse areas between here and Houston. And it will stop just outside of Houston. Then we have the congressional district that I'm part of, 21, go from this point and go west to the Hill Country, which is very pretty, but doesn't have really anything in common with what my life's all about. And then we would loop back around to pick up San Antonio.
Silver: About three hours' drive.
Bell: Oh. At least. From District 25, from where we stand, you would go south, and you'd just keep on going until you saw a big sign that said, "You are now entering Mexico."
Silver: So, let's get this straight. The other district stretches from this little patch of brown grass in downtown Austin all the way to the Mexico border.
Silver: We're talking about 300 miles.
Bell: Oh, yes. At least.
Silver: 25 goes by another name, doesn't it?
Bell: It's called the "Bacon Strip," because it looks like a piece of bacon, especially when it's been cooked up, and it just goes very long and very narrow.
Silver: Despite the dramatic change in the local political landscape, on the streets of downtown Austin, I soon find out that gerrymandering isn't exactly a word, which falls trippingly off the tongue.
Silver: Okay. Gerrymandering.
Man: Gerrymandering. I don't know him. I have no idea who that is. [laughs]
Silver: The word gerrymandering, what does that mean to you?
Woman: Um, I'm not quite familiar with that.
Man 2: Nice to meet you, Jerry. How are you?
Silver: But then this is the epicentre of Texan politics, and soon we meet people who aren't short of an opinion or two.
Woman 2: Well, I don't like it, because that's what the Republicans have done to us, especially down in our district.
Man 3: Down in our district, they're trying to get rid of our real senator and favor a Republican dip, because he's got a lot of money.
Woman 2: And they've gerrymandered the whole district to fit their needs, where they wanted it to be.
Silver: So you're totally opposed to it?
Woman 2: Um-hmm. Unless it's in my favor. [laughs] Then I'm okay with it. But this one wasn't. [laughs more]
Silver: A good thing for Texas that the lines have been redrawn?
Man 4: Personally, it favors the position that I hold.
Silver: You're a Republican.
Man 4: That's correct.
Man 5: Democrats, Republicans, they all gerrymander, and it's part of the process. Strategically, over time, you know, we all beat each other up, and it works out to the betterment of the people.
Silver: That may have been the perception in the past, but this time round, many Democrats we spoke to claim there was interference from the highest levels of the Republican party.
Bitter accusations abound that the Texas gerrymander was engineered-not in the air-conditioned backrooms of the state Capitol, but 1500 miles away in Washington, D.C., by Tom DeLay, the hugely influential Republican House Majority Leader.
The argument goes that DeLay, who's from Texas, wanted to ensure a rock solid Republican majority in the U.S. House, as well as retain his own job. And gerrymandering Texas was the best way to achieve that.
Samuel Hirsch is a Washington attorney who represents the Democrats in redistricting cases.
Samuel Hirsch: As this process moved along in 2003, of redrawing these lines in this very unorthodox and oddly-timed way, every time the train was about to go off the rails, DeLay, personally, would fly from Washington to Austin to basically twist the arms of the state legislators on the Republican side and get them back on track. Because every time a Republican state legislator tried to do what was right for his community, as opposed to what was right for Tom DeLay, he got his arm broken. He's a very powerful guy; he's a very determined guy. He's a very effective politician, and he's very unprincipled. And, he basically, in my view, coerced the state legislators into doing something that was almost unheard of in modern American history, which is to redraw a perfectly lawful map for no reason other than partisan maximisation.
Silver: I wanted to put some of these points to Tom DeLay, but his office declined my repeated requests for an interview.
However, Republican Texas House Member Phil King sees nothing wrong with partisan maximisation.
He says his ultimate goal was to block a Democrat majority in the U.S. House.
King: If you have a Democrat majority in the U.S. House, you have a Democrat speaker in the U.S. House. If you have a Democrat speaker in the U.S. House, you have a very liberal group of committee chairs that will be defining public policy out of that body. It was very important to me 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.
Silver: So by insulating their majority against any possible swing in the U.S. House, the Republicans get to set the legislative agenda and keep the Democrats on the sidelines.
George W. Bush Doll: I strongly believe we need to make sure that consumer confidence stays high by giving people more of their own money back.
John Alford: Also, actually a very nicely made miniature doll of President Bush. Part of a series that eventually -
Silver: Political scientist John Alford of Rice University in Houston, collects political memorabilia.
An expert on gerrymandering, he says Texas, despite its stature, was just another pawn in a national game.
Alford: What happened in Texas over the last six years 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.
Silver: It's not just Texas.
And it's not just the Republicans.
The thing about gerrymandering is that both sides have been at it.
Brad Jewitt: We are in Upper Marlborough, Maryland. This is Prince George's County, home to the Prince George's County Fair. We're looking forward to meeting a lot of people today.
Silver: 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 6 to 2 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's working the crowds at the local fair.
Announcer: And we'd like to welcome everybody here to the Mid-Atlantic Clogging and Talent Competition. Ladies and gentlemen, from Windsor, Virginia, Southern Sweethearts.
Jewitt: How you doing today, ma'am?
Woman: Hello. How're you doing?
Jewitt: I'm doing well.
Jewitt: My name's Brad Jewitt. I'm running for Congress in this district.
Woman: I noticed. [laughs]
Jewitt: Where do you live at?
Woman: In Clinton.
Jewitt: In Clinton?
Jewitt: Well, I'm running to represent you.
Woman: Oh, okay.
Jewitt: This is some information about me. If you wouldn't mind taking a look at it, I'd certainly appreciate it.
Woman: All right.
Jewitt: I need all the support I can get on November 2.
Jewitt: All right?
Woman: Thank you.
Announcer: Hot dogs are down to 50 cents. Barbecue's $1. Is that correct? If you can still get up out of a chair and walk home after eating all that I don't know, but this is the chance you've been waiting for. This is some very good food at a very good price. Take home some for your family for supper tonight.
Jewitt: Yes ma'am.
Woman 2: Hi. How are you?
Jewitt: How are you? Nice to meet you.
Woman 2: That's great. Great. Okay.
Jewitt: You live in Clinton as well?
Woman 2: No, I live in Upper Marlborough.
Jewitt: 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.
Woman 2: Okay.
Silver: What do you think is the impact on voters, on the public here in Maryland, of partisan redistricting?
Jewitt: 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.
Silver: I don't-What do you think the effect is of that confusion? Do you think it makes people less likely to vote? Apathetic?
Jewitt: I do. And that's-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."
Silver: 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%.
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.
Ritchie: The 2004 elections were, for me, the least competitive in history.
Silver: Rob Ritchie from the Center For Voting and Democracy.
Ritchie: 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.
Amos: Still to come, why critics of gerrymandering say it does more than just make campaigns safe for the incumbent.
Issacharoff: It also corrodes their sense that they're supposed to do the bidding of their constituents, because they are essentially untouchable.
Amos: This is Carving Up the Vote, a documentary from American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. I'm Deborah Amos. Major Funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To learn more about this and other RadioWorks projects, visit our web site at AmericanRadioWorks.org. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Amos: American Public Media presents Carving Up the Vote, a documentary by American RadioWorks and BBC Current Affairs. I'm Deborah Amos.
In this final part of our program, the BBC's James Silver looks at how gerrymandering has changed the way Congress responds, or does not respond, to the voters.
[NPR election theme music]
Linda Wertheimer: The polls have closed everywhere in the United States except Alaska.
Robert Siegel: But we still can't see-
Silver: America has just witnessed the least competitive congressional election in its history.
The founding fathers framed the Constitution so that the House of Representatives reflected the prevailing mood of the people. That's why elections are held every two years.
The Senate, meanwhile, was designed to be less subject to voters' whims.
But over time, says John Alford of Rice University, they've swapped roles.
Alford: The U.S. House is now remarkably unresponsive to changes in public opinion. It has become the constitutional Senate of the United States government. So the Senate was built to be unresponsive-initially no elections at all. And even with elections, six-year terms, and staggered. It's impossible to turn the Senate over in a single election. That was to slow down public mood. It's now relatively easy to turn the Senate over. The Senate turns over, now, much more rapidly than the House. It flip-flops back and forth. If there's a real public mood change, the Senate leads the change; the House follows. The House is now so tightly redistricted in terms of partisan advantage, it's not clear that anything could change partisan control in the House, in terms of public mood.
Silver: As well as being unresponsive to public mood, the fact that it verges on the impossible for voters to kick out incumbents has bred a degree of arrogance in the House of Representatives.
In fact, some analysts even liken members of the U.S. Congress to British peers-members of the House of Lords, The U.K.'s Upper House.
Samuel Issacharoff of Columbia University.
Issacharoff: They act with a complete sense of entitlement, as if having a district is like a peerage: it's yours for life. In the last round in New York, for example, one senior congressman was put into a district that actually turned out to be competitive. And he went to the party bosses, and then, ultimately, to the apportionment commission complaining that he had once run in a competitive election in the 1970s and was outraged that it would be his turn to do so again. "Let somebody else do that," he said. "This is my seat." And that is fairly typical of the sense of entitlement that running repeatedly in noncompetitive elections breeds in the representatives. It also corrodes their sense that they're supposed to do the bidding of their constituents, because they are essentially untouchable.
Silver: From Texas to Pennsylvania, and Maryland to Colorado, gerrymandering has spread like wildfire through American politics over the past five years.
But can the flames be doused?
The Democrats appealed against the Texas gerrymander, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ordered the case back to a lower court.
D.C. Lawyer Sam Hirsch is representing the Texas Democrats.
He also represented the party in a similar case, the Pennsylvania gerrymander, which the Supreme Court considered back in April.
Hirsch: After the 2000 census, Pennsylvania had grown more slowly than the rest of the United States. So instead of having 21 congressional seats, it was only going to have 19. And they had to redraw them to be of equal population. At the time, the Republicans controlled the state Senate, the state House and the governorship in Pennsylvania, and they drew a really bizarre map with all sorts of peculiar shapes, designed to pack the state's Democratic voters into a handful of districts, and make all the other districts safely, but not overwhelmingly, Republican. By doing so, they were hoping to take a slightly Democratic leaning state and generate for that state, an overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegation. And they crammed this thing through the legislature, and succeeded in their goals, unfortunately. We challenged this map in court, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court justices fragmented very badly over this issue.
Silver:: In fact, the nine justices deadlocked, saying there was no clear, manageable "judicial standard" by which to decide the claim.
And so, the controversial map was allowed to stand.
In November's election, Pennsylvania's congressional delegation remained locked at 12 to 7 in favor of the Republicans.
Many fear that this refusal to declare Pennsylvania's new map unconstitutional, will spark other, more extreme, gerrymanders.
The problem for the courts is that there is no body of case law, which distinguishes between legally enshrined map redrawing and egregious gerrymandering.
But Sam Hirsch says different rules apply to the Texas case.
Hirsch: In Texas, there's a clear-cut rule you can apply. And that rule is that if you replace a map in the middle of a decade, even though it's perfectly lawful, for no reason other than partisan maximization, that's unconstitutional. And in that sense, it's very different from Pennsylvania, because it doesn't raise questions of, "How much is too much?" It just raises a bright line rule that once you've put a new, redistricting map into effect, you leave it alone. And you let the voters decide, from then on, who will represent them in Congress, rather than the mapmakers deciding who will represent them.
Silver: By handing the case back to the lower court, the Supreme Court is demonstrating an historical reluctance to get involved in such cases.
John Alford of Rice explains why.
Alford: The old argument against the court being involved here is something called a "political thicket." You know, the court should not get dragged into the political thicket. And reason is not because the court ought not to be political. The real reason is, that what it's like inside the political thicket. Right? That once you're dragged into the political thicket-Once they get your toe in the thicket, then they put your leg in the thicket. And then you're just bodily in there. Right? It's-There's no way out of it. It is a commitment to an ongoing, escalating process. It is not a "make a ruling and leave things for a later day." And so the court has found so many of its most difficult areas of jurisdiction to be these political thicket issues.
Silver: So if the courts won't rule, what other options are there?
Well, one idea is for the individual states to set up versions of what happens in the United Kingdom.
The U.K. boundary commissions are independent bodies, which redraw political lines in Britain every 8-12 years, more or less free from political interference.
A handful of states in the U.S., including Iowa and New Jersey, have gone down that road.
Persily: 4822. This is set up as a marginal Democratic district, right? And you can think-You look at it and it's either Hispanic Democrat, because you look at 4822 and it's about 60% Hispanic. Right? About 10-9% African American.
Persily continues lecturing in background.
Silver: Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at Pennsylvania University, talks his students through the finer points of congressional map redrawing.
Persily: You're going to take the Dem-the Republican suburbs and throw them into the district of a Democrat incumbent.
Student: All right.
Persily: You've learned something from Tom DeLay.
Silver: Persily says there's no broad tradition of independent commissions in American politics.
In fact, they're viewed with suspicion.
Persily: In other countries, the idea of an independent commission works. So that in Britain and in Canada, and, I think to a lesser degree, Australia, you have independent boundary commissions that draw lines. And Iowa, like these other countries, has a tradition of nonpartisan civil servants who have the respect of political parties and are pretty much left to do what they want. But there's nothing about the Iowa system which is easily transferable to other states. What happens in Iowa, the head of the legislative services council, serves at the pleasure of the speaker of the House of Representatives. And I can tell you, if you take that institutional form and put him in New York, that person's job wouldn't be there for more than a week. The first person to say, "Look, I'd like to draw a nonpartisan redistricting plan for New York," would be shipped off to Connecticut pretty quickly.
Silver: Texas Republican Phil King comes down firmly against independent commissions at state level.
After all, he argues, politicians are public servants and can therefore be held accountable.
King: We're a citizen's legislature. Nobody's doing this for the money. The idea is that we send people to Austin to represent the needs of my community. If I don't handle redistricting the way they want, then they have the power to vote me out of office for going against their will. If you give this authority to a commission, then you take away the authority of the voters to be a part of that process. And as long as we have the legislature doing the redistricting process, if the voters don't like what we're doing, they can vote us out and put in somebody that does what they want. If we give it over to a commission, we remove the electorate's influence on redistricting.
Frost: And I want to thank the people of North Texas for permitting me to serve you for 26 years in the United States Congress.
Silver: It's the early hours of November 3, 2004.
In District 32 of Dallas-Fort Worth, the people have spoken.
After a bruising campaign, in which both sides haemorrhaged cash, Democratic Congressman Martin Frost concedes defeat.
His opponent Pete Sessions won 55 % of the vote to his 45%.
Frost: The fight that we put together, the campaign that we put together, in this district in this year, against all odds, I believe will set an example for future Democrats who want to run in Dallas County and who want to run in the state of Texas, because I believe that the tide-the long-term tide is on our side.
Silver: Radiating defiance, after 26 years of continuous service, the senior member of Congress from Texas, bids an emotional farewell to his supporters to prepare for a life beyond fundraising, lobbyists and the D.C. Beltway.
Frost: This was a race that I couldn't win. We sure as hell tried. This was a very tough district for a Democrat, and I did well as a Democrat running in a district that was drawn for Republicans. I congratulate my opponent on a hard-fought campaign.
Silver: Frost's campaign team wastes no time in blaming their political foes.
They say, unequivocally, that Republican gerrymandering did their man in.
All over the state, the news for Texas Democrats is bad.
Their congressional delegation has withered from 17 to 15 seats in their favor to 21-11 in favor of the Republicans.
Four of the five targeted Democrats lost their seats.
Frost Campaign chairman Mark Stanley cries foul.
Sounds of large group of people mingling
Mark Stanley: It is a blatant manipulation, and it achieved its intended purpose. It eliminated effective, good people from Congress. And it's insane, in my view, to eliminate a guy like Martin Frost, who's had the seniority and the clout and the effectiveness in Congress. It's sad for the people of this region.
Silver: Afterwards, I track down State Representative Phil King by phone for his reaction to the election results.
One of the architects of the 2003 plan, he's satisfied with the outcome and shrugs off suggestions that his new map has eliminated competition.
King: It's quite the opposite. But for Texas redistricting, there would have been no competitive seats up in this election cycle in Texas. All 32 would have been decided before the voters went to the polls. As it was, we had seven or eight competitive seats; we had changes in a number of those. So, but for our redistricting, there would have been no competition.
Silver: With four white Democrats losing their seats in Texas, Rob Ritchie predicts that by 2012, there's a very good chance that no white Democrat will be representing the state in the U.S. House.
Ritchie: The Texas gerrymander was 95% successful for the Republican party at least. They got almost everything they wanted, and it actually could get worse for Democrats in the next couple of elections, because they have very cleverly undercut essentially every white Democratic incumbent in a way that, over time, could easily lead to a delegation that has only people of color representing Democrats, and maybe in only eight or nine seats, and then the rest, largely white Republicans. And it's part of a strategy that they seem to be pursuing in Texas, which is to play up the people of color party versus the white party. And as long as the state is a white majority, that seems to be an effective strategy for them.
Silver: But Phil King utterly refutes that there was any such strategy.
Instead, he falls back on a tried and tested defense: that the Republicans were simply correcting the 1991 Texas gerrymander by the Democrats.
King: All we had to do was undo the gerrymandered districts. So it was an easy process for us. We tried very, very hard to keep communities of interest together. That was the predominant theme. Where you could, you didn't want to split cities and counties. Where you could, you didn't want to split neighborhoods and voting precincts and things of that nature. So that was-That was predominant.
Silver: But King always has one eye on the bigger picture.
Namely, the power brokers in Washington.
And for them, the Texas result proved crucial.
King: But for the redistricting done in Texas, there would have been a two-seat net loss in the U.S. House of Representatives. Because Texas did redistricting, there was a Republican net gain of four seats in the U.S. House.
Silver: In fact, so successful were Phil King and his colleagues, that some observers say the Republicans look set to control the U.S. House for a generation.
Many Americans believe the principal danger to democracy lies in big business and powerful lobbyists buying influence with lawmakers.
That explains the growing clamor for campaign finance reform.
But there is another threat to the democratic process, which gets far less attention.
It's becoming increasingly clear that thanks to gerrymandering, in the world's most powerful democracy, it's the political class who get to call the shots instead of the millions who elect them.
That, says Samuel Issacharoff of Columbia University, should set off the alarm bells.
Issacharoff: I think that partisan gerrymandering is a menace to democracy in two senses. It corrodes the legitimacy of government by elected representatives, and it undermines the traditions of discourse, the liberation and common good that have long been the greatest achievements of democratic governments around the world.
Silver: President George W. Bush can look forward to a relatively trouble-free ride from the newly elected Congress-at least until the mid-term elections in 2006.
Gerrymandering in the Lone Star State helped secure him a slim, but workable, majority in the House for years to come.
But whether it's Democrats or Republicans stacking the deck in their favor, there's little doubt that the voters are short-changed in the end.
And that's very far from what the founding fathers intended.
For BBC Current Affairs and American RadioWorks, I'm James Silver.
Amos: Carving Up the Vote was produced by Sue Ellis of BBC Current Affairs. It was edited by the BBC's Maria Balinska and Stephen Smith of American RadioWorks. We had help from Ellen Guettler, Sasha Aslanian and Misha Quill. Mixing by Craig Thorson. The web producer is Ochen Kaylan. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg.
To find out more about Carving Up the Vote, visit our web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I'm Deborah Amos. American RadioWorks is the national documentary unit of American Public Media.
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