States still drawing -- and erasing -- new districts for US House seats

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

More than a third of the members of the US House of Representatives may have to campaign before a different set of constituents in 1984. Congressional redistricting is disputed or still unfinished in at least 11 states. And it could be months before the congressmen - and any would-be challengers - learn what boundary realignments will be made. Based on the federal census, the districts are redrawn every 10 years to redistribute 435 House seats among the states.

In California, voters last June rejected the current, gerrymandered division of the state. The Democratic Legislature, meeting in special session in late December, hustled through a new, but hardly less partisan, plan that would go into effect next year. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. hastily signed it into law.

Republican leaders and other critics of the measure, including Common Cause, are unhappy with the plan and are considering taking the issue back to voters.

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Walter Zelman, director of the state's Common Cause, says the redistricting is ''another vicious partisan gerrymander,'' shaped to ensure continued Democratic dominance in the 45-member US House delegation.

Such a political remapping might have been impossible had the heavily Democratic state Legislature waited until this year, when Republican George Deukmejian became governor.

If the issue gets back on the ballot, it may include a proposal to transfer the redistricting task from lawmakers to a bipartisan, impartial commission. Even in a state election, however, prospects for such a plan are uncertain. A similar initiative backed by Common Cause on last November's ballot failed. Any revised version of that initiative to approve the panel also would stipulate that redistricting be finished in time for the 1984 congressional election.

Montana's redistricting plan, drawn by a special five-member commission this year, was accepted without changes by the state Legislature on Feb. 4. The plan becomes official on March 4 when filed with Montana's secretary of state. Still pending, however, is a federal court suit that challenges the legality of giving a nonlegislative body authority to redistrict.

Maine, which also has two seats in the US House, is the only other state that last year made no attempt to realign boundaries.

Texas lawmakers, whose 1982 congressional redistricting was changed last winter by a federal district court ruling, are working on a revision. The new version may include major changes in the territory of four of the state's 27 House members. Involved in heated dispute are the new 3rd, 5th, 24th, and 26th Districts in the Dallas area.

Congressional redistricting is also a priority for the Washington Legislature. In late November, a three-judge federal court rejected the current alignment of the state's eight US House districts.

New Jersey lawmakers may be forced to reshape the state's 14 districts. The US Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on a GOP challenge to the current setup. The districts were crafted in late 1981 by the Democrat-controlled Legislature and signed into law last year by Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne, hours before he left office.

A federal district court later struck down the measure. But this decision was appealed to the high court, which has allowed New Jersey's congressional seats from the disputed districts to be filled, pending its decision.

Redistricting plans in at least five other states - Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - face various legal challenges.

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