Let voters fix a gerrymander

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The Supreme Court grabbed a live wire last week when it agreed to hear a dispute over Texas congressional redistricting. The case positively crackles with drama and personality, but these distract from the real issue - truly competitive elections.

Since the nation's earliest years, politicians have tried to draw voting districts to favor their party, and leave the other party in the minority. But gerrymandering, as that process is known, has grown worse, aided by sophisticated computer programs. The result is largely noncompetitive districts - a boon for incumbents.

In 2004, only seven of 399 representatives up for reelection in the US House lost their seats. That's a 98 percent success rate for incumbents - but a flunking grade for a democracy built on a contest of ideas.

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That year, the Republican majority in the House was cemented by a 2003 Texas redistricting. Engineered by then House majority leader Tom DeLay, the redistricting netted the GOP an extra six House seats (Mr. DeLay recently stepped down from the leadership as he fights indictments related to the plan). During the battle, Democratic legislators in Texas fled the state to try to block a vote on the plan - to no avail.

In a court suit, though, Democrats charge the plan was drawn solely "to maximize partisan advantage." This, they argue, would be unconstitutional because it denies Democratic voters a fair and equal chance to elect representatives of their choice. Districts are judged fair that reflect equality, contiguity, unity, and compactness.

But whose job is it to correct blatant political gerrymandering - if indeed that's what happened in Texas?

Last year the Supreme Court rightly shrank from determining whether a Republican redistricting in Pennsylvania was rankly political. In a 5-to-4 decision, the majority upheld the state's redistricting, saying the court had no measurable standards by which to determine overly political gerrymandering. Four justices said this simply was not the court's role. Indeed, the Constitution leaves the management of elections to state legislatures - and by extension, voters.

This, then, is the best level to check raw political gerrymandering. Through ballot initiative and other avenues, 12 states have decided that boards or commissions rather than legislatures should draw district maps - an attempt to avoid partisanship.

Texas doesn't have a ballot initiative option, but if voters there object to the redistricting, they can use the ballot box to throw out state legislators who supported it. They probably won't do that though, because the new districts align more closely with Texans' political leanings. By 1990, Republicans polled almost evenly with Democrats in statewide races. In 2004, the GOP carried 58 percent of such votes.

Other issues within this case are prime targets for a high court ruling - for instance, whether the redistricting violated minority voting rights, or whether it's constitutional to redistrict twice in the 10-year census period (and use out-of-date data).

But the court must have a high threshold to take away the constitutional authority of voters and legislators. Taking on their roles risks the court's credibility as an impartial body. Political gerrymandering needs fixing, but voters and legislators must recognize it's up to them to do it.

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