Redistricting puts damper on GOP hopes to win House

Like icicles in the sun, once glistening Republican prospects for capturing control of the US House of Representatives have all but melted away.

With few exceptions, congressional redistricting, based on the 1980 US census , has not gone in the GOP's favor. And in the process, the all-too-familiar ''gerrymander'' has been raising anew its ugly head.

Republican leaders, who a year ago were looking forward to more than a dozen new House seats, have scaled down their expectations.

Some close to the scene, like Thomas Hoffler, the Republican National Committee's director of redistricting, hope their party can still win two to five seats. But they concede even such lowered expectations may be too high. Much could depend on the outcome of redistricting in Florida, Michigan, and New York.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists, although less than jubilant, say they are generally satisfied with the congressional remapping. ''It looks like we could make a net gain of two to four seats through redistricting,'' says Ann Lewis, political director for the Democratic National Committee.

With the 1982 congressional campaign season fast approaching, 35 states from New Hampshire to California, with 332 seats in the next Congress, have completed redistricting.

Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming were spared the task since each is entitled to but one House seat. And two of the remaining nine - Maine and Montana - will not tackle the job until next year.

Besides Florida, Michigan, and New York, where redistricting impasses have moved into the courts in the past few weeks, the internal boundary shifts in Hawaii, Kansas, Georgia, and Mississippi also are in the hands of three-judge federal panels.

Georgia and Mississippi are fighting Justice Department rejection of their redistricting statutes. (Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the Justice Department has jurisdiction over all or portions of more than a dozen states.) If unsuccessful, a hurry-up boundary redrawing project will be necessary. The Georgia primary is Aug. 10 and the candidate filing deadline is June 9.

Although initially a legislative responsibility, courts have been directly involved in either drawing or passing judgment on new districts in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas.

And the US Supreme Court is expected to decide next year whether New Jersey should be ordered to come up with more equally populated districts from which to elect its 14 House members.

In California, the crafting of 45 districts last fall by Democratic US Rep. Phillip Burton - approved in a rush by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. - could be undone by a June 8 GOP-pushed initiative petition. But the districts will stand at least until the 1984 election. This became certain April 27 when the US Supreme Court refused to set aside a ruling by the California Supreme Court allowing the remapping to stand for the congressional campaign.

The GOP, which currently holds 21 of the Golden State's 43 US House seats, appears unlikely to gain either of the two new ones and may lose at least three or four of those it now holds.

While acknowledging the California remap is a partisan one, Democratic activists insist that the GOP would have done the same if it had the chance. They note that Indiana's redistricting, put through by a Republican-dominated Legislature and signed into law over Democratic protests last year by GOP Gov. Robert D. Orr, was specially tailored to cost the Democrats at least two and perhaps three of their six seats. This was despite the fact the Hoosier State's 11-member US House delegation shrinks by but one.

In Pennsylvania, with a GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governor, redistricting seems likely to cost Democrats two seats, the number by which the current 25-member delegation will shrink.

Next to California, the biggest Republican districting disappointments in 1982 are in Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas.

Last fall the GOP figured to gain at least three House seats in Texas. But projections are more modest now. Republicans were not helped when a three-judge federal court year redrew several districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth region that had been enacted by a bipartisan legislative coalition and signed into law by Republican Gov. William P. Clements Jr.

In Illinois, a court-ordered realignment plan could cost Republicans at least two seats, the number the state is losing from its current 13-member delegation.

Although the New Jersey House contingent henceforth will be one less than its current 15, the Democratic Legislature and then Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne pushed through a remap that Republicans contend could cost their party up to three seats. A US appeals court found the plan unacceptable on population grounds, but its directive for lawmakers to redo the job was thwarted by a Democratic appeal to the Supreme Court.

Of the 41 states now redistricted for this year's election, if not for the next decade, few have more than modest population deviations. In fact, the largest spread in district populations is just 2.95 percent, in Indiana.

In terms of compactness, however, many of the newly drawn districts are far from masterpieces, observes Andrea Wollack of the National Council of State Legislatures.

Gerrymandering, a process by which the strength of political or ethnic groups is diluted or stretched through often awkwardly shaped districts, is a particular concern to Common Cause and to national civil-rights groups.

''Both parties are guilty of using the gerrymander wherever they think they can get away with it and when it suits their purpose,'' observes Marcy Stephens, state issues coordinator for Common Cause.

Despite their readiness to see to it that redistricting is done and, in most instances, rigid insistence that newly crafted elective territories meet one man-one vote standards, both federal and state courts continue to largely disregard what in some instances are flagrant gerrymanders.

It may be recalled that last September Congressman Burton proudly described a newly shaped US House district in the San Francisco Bay area which, he said, ''curls in and out like a snake.''

With states filing deadlines or party primaries approaching, federal courts that have seized jurisdiction in redistricting in Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, and New York either have appointed or are expected to appoint special masters either to draw new congressional lines or choose from various proposals.

In New York, for example, where five congressional seats must be wiped out, a three-judge federal court has given its appointees until June 1 to come up with a redistricting plan. State lawmakers have one more chance to agree on a compromise measure later this week.

The latter, however, may be all but impossible since neither the Republicans, who control the state Senate, nor Democrats, who predominate in the Assembly and have the governorship, appear willing to accept anything that would cost their party more than two congressmen.

New York Democrats now hold a 22-to-17 edge over the GOP.

Congressional redistricting in Michigan was taken over by a three-judge federal court in Flint when Republican Gov. William G. Milliken April 27 vetoed as unfair to his party a measure for carving the state's 19 districts into 18, crafted by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

In similar action April 22, Democratic Kansas Gov. John Carlin vetoed the Republican Legislature's redistricting plan and dumped the shaping of that state's five US House districts into judicial hands.

Jurisdiction over recarving Florida's 14 districts into 19 was also taken over late last month by a three-judge federal panel when the Democratic-controlled Legislature could not agree on a plan, after several months of trying.

Dividing Hawaii into two districts began anew late last month after a federal court rejected a measure which based apportionment on registered voters rather than raw population. A tentative June 1 deadline for the remap has been set.

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