Gerrymander Wars

A HANDFUL of people seated before computer screens are changing the face of American politics.

They are engaged in outlining new congressional districts in 43 states to reflect population shifts recorded by the 1990 census. Most of these states require new district lines because they gained or lost seats in the House of Representatives.

Sophisticated computer programs facilitate drawing with precision district borders that satisfy the Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" standard and also the mandate under the Voting Rights Act to create black- or Hispanic-majority districts. Within these parameters, however, the line drawers have a lot of leeway. Thus, in many states political battles are being waged over which party controls the computers.

In some states, either the Democrats or Republicans have a lock on the state legislative process and thereby on redistricting. In many others, however, party dominance is divided.

Whose computers are used makes a big difference. In Massachusetts, which lost one of its 11 congressional seats, a redistricting plan proposed by the Democratic legislature would place only two of the incumbent Democratic representatives into the same district, whereas the plan of the state GOP pits eight Democratic incumbents against each other in redrawn districts.

If politicians are unable to agree on a redistricting plan, the lines may have to be drawn by state judges, as in California, or federal judges, as in Texas and Illinois.

Republicans may be emerging as slight winners in the gerrymander wars. That's because Republican state lawmakers and governors made some political inroads into previous Democratic bastions in the 1990 elections, and also because two-thirds of the sitting federal judges were appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. Besides the GOP's judicially anointed gains in California and Texas, redistricting plans in such major states as Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio could ultimately be deci ded by federal judges.

Judges with laptops: American democracy at work!

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