'Gerrymander' begins its assault on US Congress

Elbridge Gerry remains a force of considerable influence on the American political scene 167 years after his passing. Few, if any, modern-day lawmakers have duplicated the salamander-shaped "gerrymandered" congressional district he crafted for Massachusetts in 1812. But some reasonable facsimiles are rearing their heads across the nation as state legislatures draw new congressional districts based on the 1980 census, as required by law.

The "gerrymander" by its simplest definition is "division of a voting area so as to give one political party a majority in as many districts as possible." The device is used to help assure the reelection of incumbent congressmen and legislators, to allow the party in power to retain -- if not enhance -- its strength, to help get rid of political mavericks and others who buck the power structure, and to exclude or diminish representation of racial minorities.

One or more of these objectives have been served in several of the 14 states where congressional redistricting plans have been approved so far this year:

* In California, the latest, if not the most conspicuous, example. A Democratic-drawn redistricting of the state's 45 US House seats has Republicans in an uproar The controversial measure was hustled through the Legislature Sept. 15 over the opposition of the GOP minority. As a result, Democrats are expected to gain up to six additional seats -- two stemming directly from the state's population growth and four wrestled from the hands of Republicans, who currently have 21 seats.

One of the new districts stretches around the San Francisco Bay area, and is described by its chief architect, US Rep. Phillip Burton (D) of California, as "gorgeous . . . it curls in and out like a snake." This newly fashioned territory is designed to help ensure the reelection of his younger brother, US Rep. John Burton (D) of California.

Another new district cuts a swathe from the Oregon border down to the state's midsection, reaching out narrowly in one area to turn what has been a Republican-held district into one tilted Democratic.

* In Mississippi, none of the five newly adjusted districts contains anything close to a majority of blacks, even though members of this group comprise at least 35 percent of the statewide population. The overwhelmingly white Legislature rejected a proposal that would have created a district in the delta area with 65 percent black inhabitants -- providing the group an opportunity to have its first Mississippi congressman in more than a century.

* In Indiana, where Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governorship, what Congressional Quarterly described last May as "a textbook case of partisan redistricting" has been adopted. This has weakened reelection prospects of at least three of the state's six incumbent Democratic congressmen. And even though Indiana will lose one of its 11 US House seats, the GOP appears to stand a good chance of enlarging its congressional delegation from the current five to seven.

* In Texas, a redistricting effort pushed through the heavily Democratic Legislature in August by a coalition of Republican and conservative Democrat lawmakers gave GOP Gov. William Clements and leaders of his party much of what they wanted. Besides strengthening most of the five current GOP congressional districts, the new districts put Republicans in a strong position to capture the three new seats resulting from state population growth. It also raises the possibility that the GOP will pick up one seat now held by a Democrat. This redistricting, like that in several of the other newly recarved states including Mississippi, must be cleared by the US Justice Department to ensure freedom from racial discrimination under the federal Voting Rights Act.

* In North Carolina there lies what is perhaps the most contorted new electoral district thus far. The state's 2nd district twists itself around three sides of the neighboring 4th district -- and in the process dodges a heavily black-populated, working-class area.

* In Tennessee, lawmakers have produced a new Fourth Congressional District that wends its uneven way some 200 miles fromt he northeast section of the state to the south central area at the Alabama border, spanning 23 counties.

And with 29 states Still trying to bring their US House districts in line with the 1980 federal census in time for next year's election, new "gerrymanders" can be expected to pop up in other parts of the country during the next few months.

Neither party can be considered big winners from the congressional districting completed over the past eight months. But it appears the GOP generally is faring slightly better, possibly picking up as many as nine additional seats -- four in Texas, two in Indiana, and one each in Nevada, Oregon, and Tennessee. This, however, could be offset by the expected loss of at least four seats in California.

Common Cause, a national citizens lobby that has declared war on "gerrymandering", is pushing for state laws providing for "fairer reapportionment" of both legislative and congressional district. Thus far, its efforts haven't been too successful.

Besides the creation of independent, bipartisan panels to handle redistricting, the organization is pushing for strict standards embracing compact and gerrymanderless electoral territories.

Since early 1962, when the Us Supreme Court first plunged into the political thicket of districting, then followed with its "one-man, one-vote ruling," state and federal courts have become a lot less timid in overturning newly established districts.

Generally, however, judges have shied away from wiping out gerrymandering except when it clearly distorts the population distribution within a state.

Courts do, however, have the authority to invalidate blatantly unfair redistricting and impose new boundaries more in line with the spirit, if not the letter, of the US Constitution. Texas is one of three states -- the others being Mississippi and Oklahoma -- now threatened by pending court suits.

Thus far, 15 states -- most of them in the South, Southwest, and far West -- with a total of 152 seats, have completed their congressional districting: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Another six states -- Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming -- will have only one congressional seat during the coming decade and therefore are spared the politically sensitive project. f the 11 states gaining one or more congressional seats in the next Congress, six -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington -- have not yet completed redistricting. Legislation in Colorado and Washington, however, was passed earlier this year only to fall before gubernatorial vetoes.

Among the nine states due to lose at least one US House seat, only Indiana has completed redistricting. Still to tackle the challenge are New York, down five seats, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, facing the loss of two seats each, and Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey, which will have one fewer congressman come January 1983.

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