When Texas Democrats hightailed it to Oklahoma two weeks ago to block a Republican redistricting plan, the arcane topic of congressional maps became the fodder of late-night comedy and water-cooler conversations. But largely missing from coverage of the House Democrats' escape was the reason for their furor: They saw Republican redistricting efforts, proposed just two years after the maps last changed, as an attempt to gerrymander districts - and ensure larger Republican majorities.
With another redistricting battle underway in Colorado, and a foiled Democratic attempt in New Mexico, there are signs that a process designed to reflect populations shifts has become another tool in an ideological tug-of-war.
Mid-term redistricting hasn't been seen in half a century, and this year's cartographical flurry is raising questions about the potential abuse of a Constitutional process pegged to census measures each decade. Now, some political watchers fear the resurgence of redistricting is a tactic to lock in electoral shifts - and gain the upper hand in Washington. Others defend redistricting as the logical fallout of the 2002 elections, which solidified Republican power in several states.
In the end, experts agree, the process may hurt both parties as Americans, confused by the Byzantine task of redistricting and frustrated with partisan politics, struggles to comprehend the need for heightened boundary battles.
"It undermines legitimacy when representatives are selecting voters rather than voters selecting representatives," says Michael McDonald, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an expert on redistricting. "What they're doing is taking once-competitive districts and producing undemocratic outcomes. I would hope both parties would leave well enough alone."
At issue is control of the US House of Representatives, where Republicans have a 24-seat advantage over Democrats. If successful in pushing through a second round of redistricting plans, the majority party could add a half dozen GOP seats to its 15 in Texas, and significantly improve the election prospects of a Colorado Republican who won by a narrow margin last year.
But the outcome is uncertain in both states. Texas Republicans' stymied effort to redraw districts may be resuscitated in a special session this summer. In Colorado, the Republican-favored redistricting bill passed but is being challenged as unconstitutional.
Much of the impetus behind the creative cartography is coming from top House Republicans such as Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, who's openly admitted that his motivation is expanding the GOP majority in the House - an understandable strategy, say political scientists.
"It's a much more competitive Congress now than in 1990," says Alan Rosenthal, a political-science professor at Rutgers University and past chairman of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission.
"The last census was before the Gingrich revolution, when Republicans were a minority in the House. Now, with such a closely divided Congress, you've got a situation where if you can get a seat here and there, that's important."
In this era of greater party polarization, Dr. Rosenthal says, he can conceive of states redistricting every two years or after each legislative session. And it's not constitutionally forbidden in many areas.
"It may be politically unwise, because it looks underhanded. Still, if the Republicans can get two or three more seats out of redistricting in Texas, it doesn't matter what the story reads," he says.
Mid-term redistricting was frequent until the early 1960s. In Washington, for example, Democrats trying to oust Republican incumbents and grab more House seats redistricted in 1951, 1957, and 1959. Even more extreme, Ohio redistricted in 1878, 1880, 1882, 1884, 1888, and 1890.
But in 1962, the Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr interpreted the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause to require that electoral districts be periodically adjusted to account for population shifts. The court also began to hear claims of racial discrimination in redistricting, and some states have been ordered to redraw lines, for this reason, midway through the decade. The high court also said in 1987 that it would hear cases related to political posturing - but until now, it has not done so.
Then, about a decade ago, redistricting technology exploded. With mapping software, computers could generate a multitude of options in minutes. The technology's first wide use was in the 2000 census, and experts believe it has added incentive to mid-term redistricting efforts.
It's still unclear whether the three cases this year are anomalies - but they may force the courts to address the issue.
"It's a conundrum. There are no clear constitutional standards when it comes to redistricting," says John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute in Washington. "But at a certain point, [doing so too frequently] would be detrimental. Citizens might begin to lack confidence in the process if they see it as just a partisan struggle."