Redistricting shifts clout, but plays it safe

A new set of congressional maps boosts incumbents, and leaves House divided.

After two years of intrigue and internecine warfare, the two major parties have once again carved up the United States into bizarre little fiefdoms under that decennial ritual known as redistricting.

With nearly every state's congressional map now redrawn to comply with new census data – despite a number of pending lawsuits – a picture is emerging as to how the new lines might tip the balance of power in Congress, both in this fall's elections and over the next 10 years.

In regional terms, clout will shift from the Northeast and industrial Midwest to Sunbelt states in the South and West, which are gaining seats to reflect their faster-growing populations.

But although most of the states gaining seats voted for George W. Bush in 2000, analysts say the partisan balance in the House of Representatives is likely to remain as narrowly divided as it is today.

In part, this is because responsibility for redistricting usually lies with state legislatures – making it a highly political and unpredictable process, in which self-interest, party loyalty, and even personal grudges come into play.

If a single party controls a state, it can fashion Rorschach-like districts packed with friendly voters to favor its own candidates. This year, Republicans drew themselves advantageous maps in Michigan and Pennsylvania, while Democrats did the same in Georgia and Maryland.

Yet many statehouses are as evenly divided as the Congress, forcing legislators to draw compromise maps – or creating a stalemate that tosses the decision to the courts.

Avoiding a loss

Moreover, with the balance of power in Congress so close, both parties played it safe, protecting their incumbents rather than drawing aggressive maps that could result in losses. As a result, analysts say the number of competitive House races is unusually low for a redistricting year, and could remain that way for the next decade.

"There were opportunities for both parties in states that slipped through their fingers," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "For some, it was because their internal divisions kept them from drawing maps. For others, it was just the plain fact that it was difficult to slice and dice a state without having that potentially backfire."

Redistricting takes place every 10 years after the census, to ensure that each member of Congress represents the same number of people. Every state gets one House seat automatically, but the other 385 are divided according to population. This year, 12 seats shifted, mostly from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West. (The biggest winners were Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and Florida; the biggest losers were Pennsylvania and New York.)

The process – which affects not only congressional lines, but also state legislatures and even city councils – can lead to major electoral upheavals. Many analysts argue that the 1994 "Republican Revolution," in which Democrats went from having a 100-seat majority to losing control of the House, was in part the result of redistricting two years before.

Since many plans are challenged in court, redistricting can also wreak havoc with states' primary schedules. North Carolina's primary, set for early May, has been postponed while the courts sort out the state's map, leaving candidates in limbo. Pennsylvania's primary was nearly postponed after a court rejected the map. But it proceeded after a few days of frantic party negotiations.

New technology – and old candidates

Many of the new maps were created with the help of computer programs that allow parties to design, with pinpoint accuracy, advantageous districts. Even since the last round of redistricting, the technology has become exponentially better, says Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

And certainly, a number of incumbents are facing tough races this year solely as a result of the new lines. In Georgia, where Democrats are expected to pick up anywhere from two to four seats, GOP Reps. Bob Barr and John Linder are fighting a tough primary battle for the state's new seventh district. Similarly, in Michigan, where Republican-drawn lines could give the GOP a majority of the state delegation, Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are battling each other for survival.

But most states used the new technology to draw up plans that work to incumbents' advantage. In California only one seat of 53 is truly up for grabs this fall – that belonging to Rep. Gary Condit (D), whose reelection bid ended this spring in a primary loss. Likewise, Texas has only one competitive House race out of 32.

Analysts say that, in addition to a greater caution among the parties, given the close margins in Congress, a pro-incumbent sentiment prevailed. Particularly in the wake of Sept. 11, there's been a desire to protect incumbents. "There's a sense this year that incumbency, clout – the ability to deliver for your state or district – became more important than making partisan jabs," says Ms. Walter.

But that doesn't mean the new maps are devoid of creatively shaped districts.

Professor McDonald calls the Illinois map "probably the most egregious case of incumbent-protection gerrymandering in the history of the United States." The 17th district, which passes through his hometown of Springfield, is about 75 miles long and at times just a block wide.

"I don't know which district I live in. That's how bad it is," he says.

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