Gerrymander test looms. California GOP will base suit to invalidate Democrat-drawn districts on new court ruling

Republican candidates for Congress in California won 4,260,007 votes in 1984, while Democrats got 4,182,524. Yet Democrats walked away with 60 percent of California's congressional seats, while Republicans got only 40 percent. What goes on here?

California stands today as one of the most glaring modern-day examples of political gerrymandering. In 1982 the California Legislature carefully carved the state into districts designed to give Democrats the greatest possible advantage in elections for Congress.

Now the United States Supreme Court has cleared the way for the Republican Party to challenge this kind of political manipulating -- an ancient practice that got its name in 1811 from the original gerrymanderer, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

The technique is simple, direct, and terribly effective. And California currently takes the prize.

Anyone winning about 100,000 votes in a California congressional race is virtually assured of election. The task for Democrats -- who control the California Legislature, which draws the congressional lines -- was to get as many 100,000-vote districts for themselves as possible.

But the Democrats faced a problem. What should they do with all those Republican voters? The answer: Isolate them; put them into as few districts as possible.

The Democratic plan has worked with a precision that would have put a smile on Governor Gerry's face. The gerrymander causes Republicans in California to ``waste'' hundreds of thousands of votes, while Democrats efficiently spread their votes to maximize their impact.

Thus, the Republican candidate in California's 14th, an awkward US House district that stretches from the Oregon border all the way down below San Francisco, gets a huge 176,840 votes -- far more than he needs for election.

But in the California 15th, the Democrat wins with a lean 99,287.

For nearly two centuries, the Supreme Court shied away from getting involved in partisan political questions like gerrymandering. Justice Felix Frankfurter once noted that it was best for the court to keep its distance from such a ``political thicket'' and leave ``politics to the people.''

But in 1960, the court outlawed racial gerrymandering. And this week, the court peered into the thicket of partisan gerrymandering, and hinted that it may be time to brave a few thorns.

In this week's case involving Indiana, the court declared for the first time that egregious partisan gerrymandering violates the US Constitution. But the court left politicians scratching their heads by also ruling that the gerrymandering in Indiana was not serious enough to warrant court action.

All sides promptly declared victory.

Republican national chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., who wants to see the California gerrymander ruled unlawful, hailed the court decision as a ``landmark'' and ``a great victory.'' He said the court had opened the way to challenge the current situation in California.

But Democratic national chairman Paul Kirk noted that the court refused to rule against Indiana, and that the GOP had been frustrated in its search for a political ``quick fix.''

Democrats were encouraged because the Indiana case seems similar to California's -- although in Indiana it is the Republicans who are accused of rigging the elections.

In 1982, Democrats got 51.9 percent of the total vote for the Indiana House of Delegates, yet won only 43 of 100 seats.

Two Supreme Court justices wrote that the Indiana House of Delegates was ``grotesquely gerrymandered to enhance the election propects of Republican candidates.''

But most of the court found the Indiana system was nevertheless constitutional.

Writing for a 7-to-2 majority, Justice Byron R. White found that, to be unconstitutional, discrimination against one political party would have to continue for more than one election. There would also have to be proof of the ``frustration of the will of the majority.''

That leaves all sides uncertain what the result will be in the court challenge now pending against California.

The outcome of the California case could be crucial for the GOP. Without a ruling against gerrymandering, Democratic domination of the US House could continue through the 1990s.

The ``mander'' part of gerrymander stems from salamander, an animal that one wit said the Democratic district approved by Governor Gerry resembled.

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