The New Redistricting

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Tracing the roots back to 1812

"I'm the person that gets called in when there's a disaster," says Nathaniel Persily, professor of law at Pennsylvania University. "The bald spot on my head is due to most of my redistricting work."

For Persily, redrawing boundaries is a stressful business. He's carved up maps all over the United States from New York to Georgia. And he says gerrymandering has far reaching implications, not least, in matters of race.

"Martin Frost represents a dying breed of white, conservative Democrats in the South," says Persily. "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."

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.

"The word gerrymander, itself," explains Persily, "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."

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.

"Beginning in the 1960s," says Columbia Law School Professor Samuel Issacharoff, "the Supreme Court said you must redistrict every ten years, and you must make sure 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 they could keep the population numbers the same while achieving extraordinary partisan objectives."

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.

"The Democrats really were the dominant political party in this country after World War II," says Ritchie. "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."

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.

Republican State Representative Phil King is 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 ten Commandments.

"I'm a Christian," says King, "and I recognize who made me. And, I read the Bible, because it helps me keep a true course."

A straight talker, King is blunt about what he was trying to do.

"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 five to seven 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."

King fervently maintains that, state wide, Texans back the Republicans. And the facts bear him out. In the November elections in Texas, George W. Bush got 61% of the popular vote, to John Kerry's 38%.

"We drew a map that probably increased Republican congressional seats from 15 to at least 20, maybe 22 in a really good year," says King. "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."

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