Census brings new political districts -- in whose favor?

Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts 168 years ago, cast a political shadow that still stretches but across the nation. Ever since he crafted a salamander-shaped legislative district in 1811 to enhance his party's elective prospects, the "gerry-mander" has continued to raise its ugly head.

And since 1980 US census population figures now being compiled promise to change the shape of Congress and state legislatures, lawmakers across the country are quietly stirring in anticipation of another redrawing of the political map. Among them are latter-day emulators of Mr. Gerry.

Forty-three states -- those entitled to more than one representative in the US House of Representatives -- must redistrict next year or in early 1982. And seats in most, possibly all, of the state legislatures must be reapportioned according to the new population figures.

In just a few states special redistricting commissions are provided. In most , legislators themselves have the challenging and politically sensitive assignment.

For this reason the results of November's legislative elections will probably have considerable impact on how both congressional and state lawmaker districts are drawn, and to the advantage of which party.

Of particular importance from a partisan standpoint are the upcoming legislative elections in those states which stand to either gain or lose congressional seats.

Current US Census Bureau projections indicate that Florida will have three more representatives in the US House, California will add two, and Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Washington will gain one apiece.

These 14 seats would come from eight states -- four from New York, two each from Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and one apiece from Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and South Dakota.

Except in South Dakota, which would end up with a single at-large congressman , and Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, which are already in a similar situation, redistricting will be necessary in time for the 1982 elections.

The speed of legislative reapportionment, however, in some instances may drag well into the decade and, as in the past, involve court challenges.

Lawmaker seat apportionments now in effect in one or both legislative chambers in 18 states were at least partially drawn by federal or state court edict.

Over the past 18 years, since the US Supreme Court first stepped into what had for decades been considered a "political thicket" and especially following the historic 1963 "one-man, one-vote" ruling, judges have had a major influence on the redistricting scene in well over half the states.

While the extent of judicial involvement, especially that of the nation's highest court, has receded in recent years, more and more apportionment measures were brought under reasonable standards in terms of comparable population and compactness.

But what the courts have accepted as equitable varies widely, especially in legislative districting. Generally, any setup where there was more than a 10 percent deviation in population between the largest and most sparsely inhabited district, has not been allowed.

In some instances, as in 1973 when a redistricting of the Virginia House of Delegates with deviations in population of up to 16 percent, the court has allowed broader latitude in order to preserve the boundaries of political subdivisions and avert fragmenting the voting strength of minorities.

The maximum population disparity in state legislative districts ranges from less than 1 percent in several states to a maximum of 45.5 percent in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

Because of the political problems involved when lawmakers are required to redraw the boundaries of their own elective territory, the redistricting often has gone more smoothly when taken out of the legislature's hands.

The constitutions or laws of 10 states now provide for either a panel comprising lawmakers and others, or an entirely separate board or commission to do the job. They are Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Taking redisticting out of the reach of legislatures is a major goal of Common Cause, the national citizens' lobby, which favors a bipartisan panel appointed from outside the political arena.

The commission, patterned after the one which realigned the Montana Senate and House in 1974, would be forbidden to take into consideration voter registration figures or past voting patterns in shaping the districts, which must be as near equal as possible in population, compact, and comprise contiguous territory.

This is meant to prevent "racial or political gerrymandering" by which less impartial redistricters are able to dilute the voting strength of minorities and either boost or weaken the electoral prospects of a political party or individual politician.

Combating gerrymanders through court suits is possible, but judges, except in the most flagrant instances of such districting abuses, have tended to shy away from ordering changes.

Proposals for an independent or at least substantially nonpartisan commission , similar to that in Montana, have been considered in at least a dozen states in recent years. Interest in this approach appears to be growing. But for perhaps largely selfish reasons, legislatures and other political officials have little enthusiasm for the idea.

Minnesota, Colorado, California, Iowa, and Oregon, however, have each moved in recent years to make it harder to twist legislative districts for political advantage.

"We are going to keep trying to get states to create special commissions to do their redistricting, but where this is politically unacceptable we hope to persuade governors and legislators to set up advisory panels to aid them in doing a good job," says Ted Stein, of the national Common Cause staff.

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