Even Computers Can't Reshape The Politics of Redistricting

Northeast, Midwest congressmen will have to vie for fewer seats

IT is that time of the decade when members of Congress look to state legislatures with a mixture of angst and fresh respect. Many visit state capitols to chat with lawmakers. Some give generously to state campaigns. In the aftermath of population shifts during the 1980s, state legislators are sharpening their pencils to redraw congressional districts. Sophisticated new computers speed the process. They also open the system to more possible alternatives and legal challenges. The final decision, however, remains intensely political.

``Reapportionment all boils down to technology and politics - it's the ultimate political game,'' says Dr. Anthony Cupaiuolo, director of the Michaelian Institute for Sub/Urban Governance at Pace University.

Lobbying and criticism from Capitol Hill incumbents is likely to be lightest in the fast-growing Sun Belt states. California, Florida, and Texas will pick up a total of 14 new US House seats. Much more likely to feel the heat from Washington are state legislators in the Northeast and Midwest, where 13 states will lose at least one House seat.

New York leads the pack with a three-seat loss. It is one of 31 states where neither Republicans nor Democrats control the reins. The state Senate is in GOP hands, while Democrats dominate the Assembly. The balance makes political compromise a necessity.

``Members of the US House from New York who normally have no contact with the state legislature are spending a great deal of time in Albany,'' observes Joseph Zimmerman, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany. ``They're up here lobbying for their lives.'' The most likely New York districts to be scrapped are in the vicinity of New York City and Buffalo. The 31st congressional district in western New York is considered particularly vulnerable. The seat, once held by Jack Kemp, now US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is held by Republican Bill Paxon, who was elected to a second term last fall.

A former member of New York's assembly, Mr. Paxon has said he wants to meet with every state senator. He has also given a substantial sum to GOP state senate campaign coffers. He stresses that population in his district actually grew, while that in two other nearby districts, represented by long-time Democrats, shrank. Yet, whoever his opponent and whatever his territory, Paxon insists he will be a candidate.

When an incumbent retires or seeks another office, reapportionment is made easier. The decision by congressional Rep. Robert Mrazek (D) of Long Island to run for the US Senate ``eases the pressure a little,'' says State Sen. Dean Skelos (R), cochairman of New York State's reapportionment task force.

Some political analysts say redistricting plans in many states may not be finalized until next spring. One delaying factor is the expected decision by the Census Bureau in mid-July on whether or not the present count needs to be readjusted for error. And getting agreement from both parties in states where power is shared can take time.

Also, the Supreme Court, which previously took a hands-off approach to the politics of redistricting, held in a 1986 decision that partisan gerrymandering can be unconstitutional. Experts say more lawsuits are likely.

Tim Storey, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says his Denver office has recently begun to track about a dozen new lawsuits.

``Redistricting has always been a complicated process,'' explains Mr. Storey. ``Computers make the job easier but they also mean plans will have to withstand more scrutiny from the outside.''

Some political scientists argue that the present system needs reform. In nine states panels of nonpartisan experts, usually appointed by the governor, draw up the redistricting plans. Dr. Zimmerman says, ``I don't believe the legislature should be responsible for redistricting.'' He says districts should be as compact as possible - ideally, square-shaped.

Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz, says there is enough accountability in the present political system. ``In my view there's no such thing as unbiased districting - it's a question of which bias,'' he says. ``The legislature is elected by the people and accountable to them. They can throw the members out. But if you put the job in some remote group's hands, well, they're not accountable to anybody except their own conscience.''

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