THIS is an election year in which many congressional incumbents are running scared, if they are running at all. Already 70 members of the United States House of Representatives have stepped down or been defeated in primaries.
Some US representatives would simply like to be facing voters in the same district as in 1990. Their districts have been altered as a result of the 1990 census.
The group includes veteran New York Democratic Congressmen Gary Ackerman, James Scheuer, Ted Weiss, and Stephen Solarz. Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Sheuer are likely to be pitted against each other in one new district, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Solarz in another.
Across the US, 19 House districts are moving in the once-every-10-years political remapping exercise known as congressional redistricting. The movement is largely from the old industrial states to the Sunbelt, where census figures show the greatest population growth. California, Texas, and Florida are the big gainers. New York, which will lose three seats from its 34-member delegation, is the major loser.
The redistricting job falls largely to state legislators. They must redraw district lines in ways that reflect population shifts but also maximize minority-group voting strength, required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Though the process sounds legalistic, it is as intensely political as anything legislators do.
"Compromise is difficult because the political stakes are perceived to be so high," says Timothy Storey, who tracks redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislators in Denver. "The parties usually take a very tough party line."
"Often, redistricting is a bloody battle," agrees Ed Garner, a research expert with the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky. "The majority party wants to maintain the status quo, while the party out of power wants to increase its ability to get someone elected."
New York, one of 13 states in which legislative power is split between two parties, is one of the last still working on its new map. New York City's ethnic diversity is a factor in the delay.
For more than a year the state's Republican-led Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly tried to draft a compromise. Finally last week, in response to a federal court's threat to impose its own plan, the Legislature quickly accepted a map drawn by a state court panel. That plan includes one new, largely Hispanic district, in addition to the seat held by Rep. Jose Serrano (D) of the Bronx. Most legislators see the plan as more protective of incumbents than the federal plan.
Still, the federal plan, which would create two new Hispanic districts, is by no means dead. Some black legislators say the plan could siphon key votes from their districts. However, Latino groups note that Hispanics now account for one-fourth of the Big Apple's population, and some say they will sue if the federal plan is not accepted.
Gov. Mario Cuomo, who signed the Legislature's bill late last week, also urged the US Department of Justice, which must review the legislative remap, to require another new Hispanic district. Mayor David Dinkins also favors such a move.
The court responsible for the federal plan said a few days ago that its plan will be imposed on the state unless federal officials approve the state's plan by July 8.
Most New York congressmen point to the fast-approaching Sept. 15 primary and say they are eager for any kind of line. "Let's just get this thing settled and have some elections," says Howard Doyle, a spokesman for Congressman Ackerman.
Experts agree that one of the toughest redistricting chores is redrawing district lines where party control is divided. Mr. Storey notes that courts moved in with substitute plans in both California and Illinois when Democratic-controlled legislatures and Republican governors could not agree. New York's legislature just happened to get blocked later than most other states, he says.
Historically, congressional districts were seldom drawn in neat squares. Yet Richard Niemi, a political scientist at the University of Rochester in New York, says district lines are changed much more today than they were during the first half of the century. Most analysts agree that the Voting Rights Act is playing a major role in creating odd-shaped districts. Geographically distant neighborhoods are sometimes linked by slender stretches of shore or highway.
Under New York's state plan, Westchester County, which lies just north of New York City and has a population of 900,000 - almost enough people to make up two districts - would no longer have any one district entirely inside county lines. Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey's district, for instance, would edge across the Bronx into Queens for one-third of its constituents.
To some observers, this kind of nipping and tucking destroys what they see as a natural community of interest. Anthony Cupaiuolo happens to be one of Ms. Lowey's constituents as well as director of the Michaelian Institute for Sub/Urban Governance at Pace University in New York City. Dr. Cupaiuolo says the reach of Lowey's new district into Queens is "outrageous and unfair."
It is more "politics as usual," in his view, than an effort to meet the technical requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
Bill Stevens, a longtime staff member of New York's Republican Senate, agrees that some of the new districts under the state plan look "very, very strange."
It is not unusual, he says, to see a district that literally runs along a highway, wraps around a river, or bisects county lines. Yet in all cases, he says, the lines are intended to meet the aim of the Voting Rights Act.
Just how high a percentage of minority residents is necessary to ensure that the group's voting strength is maximized, however, remains unclear. One of the difficulties, with Hispanics in particular, says Mr. Niemi, is that figures on citizenship [thus, voter eligibility] can be hard to come by.
Niemi says he thinks that some aspect of the Voting Rights Act, such as its effect on district compactness, may well come before the US Supreme Court for a more refined definition in a case during the 1990s.