Census sets off a battle to redraw voter districts -- and power in Congress

State legislators and governors must redraw voter districts to account for population changes from the census. But the process often leads to a gerrymander of safe districts for incumbents. There is a better, fairer way.

All eyes are on the US House in this fall’s election, but that’s not the only place where a political earthquake might shake up power.

A mad scramble is also on to influence elections for state legislatures, as well as governors. National political bigwigs and big dollars – record amounts, actually – are focused on these local races.

The reason? This is a census year, and it is these newly elected officials who will use the new population numbers to redraw the boundaries of voter districts. Those districts will then set the contours of power and policy for the next decade.

Republicans see the opportunity for a long-lasting comeback in Washington if they can tip enough statehouses their way, and thus come up with voter districts likely to elect Republicans to Congress again and again. Likewise, Democrats are working hard to defend their mapping turf.

There would be nothing wrong with the mad scramble were it not for the fact that it’s scrambling American democracy. Many state legislatures and governors have gotten increasingly caught up in sophisticated “gerrymandering” of voter districts – shaping “safe” districts according to computer programs that reliably return incumbents to power.

Legislators are selecting their voters, instead of voters selecting their lawmakers.

The US Constitution requires redistricting after every census in order to make districts roughly equal in population, guaranteeing equal representation across the land. It leaves the method up to the states, though, and oh, the self-serving methods that many state politicians have chosen.

The party in power uses technology to account not only for population, but also voter registration data, voting patterns, and the addresses of incumbent lawmakers (in some cases, maps have been refigured so that an incumbent of the opposing party is drawn right out of his or her home district).

Thus are born districts that are no longer competitive, that don’t foster the free exchange of ideas, that hatch more extreme candidates who play to their home base, and that lead to hardened, immovable positions in elected bodies.

Under these practices, incumbents rule: In 2008, 87 percent of incumbents were returned to the House; in 2006, it was 89 percent; in 2004, 91 percent were reelected.

Fair mapping means creating districts that are contiguous and compact, equal and united – districts that reflect a community with common interests, such as shared schools and a jobs base. Gerrymandering produces oddly shaped districts that unite like-minded people but little else.

There is a way to foster fair districting, and that is to have maps drawn by nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions or panels. Iowa, for instance, turns to its “Legislative Services Agency,” a nonpartisan group of lawyers and economists who are not allowed to use political data such as voter registration or preferences. They submit their maps to the legislature for an up or down vote. The process is seen as fair by both parties.

Commissions have caught on in about a dozen states, pushed toward this solution by fed-up voters and even politicians. In California, congressional and legislative seats so rarely change parties that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has strongly backed redistricting reform. In the last decade, only one incumbent has been defeated in a California congressional race. [Editor's note: A previous version incorrectly summarized the results of the 2008 congressional and legislative races in California.]

Two years ago, voters there approved an initiative to let a panel of citizens set boundaries for state legislative contests. This year, a measure to extend that to congressional districts is on the ballot. “There’s more turnover in the Kremlin than there’s turnover here in California,” the governor once quipped.

Competitive races strengthen America’s democracy. If state legislators and governors don’t recognize that, voters should point them to nonpartisan or bipartisan mappers who do.

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